It is ironic that Asamoah Gyan was once again being hailed as an unlikely hero throughout Ghana after scoring the late penalty that saw off Serbia 1-0 in Group D. It was not long ago that the Rennes striker almost walked out of the Black Stars team after overwhelming public criticism.
In the run-up to the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Ghana, as hosts, were feeling all of the pressure of expectation, and despite being just 22 years of age, Gyan was singled out as the weakest link in the side. After things reached fever pitch, he had his bags packed and was ready to leave the team, only to be persuaded to stay at the last minute. And though he was clearly shaken, he set aside his nerves to score the first goal of the event from the penalty spot.
But then, the Accra native has been scoring significant goals for his country from the very start – tallying on his international debut to seal victory in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Somalia, just days before his 18th birthday. In fact, he has opened the Black Stars' account at each of the last four major tournaments, including against the Czech Republic at Germany 2006, Ghana's long-awaited first world finals.
I'm the one who leads the singing. It makes people happy. I make people laugh to forget about football.
"If you see the past record, I was the first guy to score for Ghana in the World Cup – ever," he told FIFA proudly. "And I was the first guy to score in 2008 in the opening game. And I scored [Ghana's] first goal in the 2010 African Cup of Nations. This World Cup I was going there to just make sure I keep doing what I have been doing. I was saying to myself, 'if you score once again you can be the happiest man', you know. So when I was playing I was just concentrating, and I knew, I knew, I would score. I knew I would score, definitely."
Scoring is what Gyan does best, so it is odd that before every tournament, observers wait for another rising Black Star to take his place leading the attack. But a classy Cup of Nations earlier this year – he registered three goals, including two match-winners in the knock-out rounds, to be named in the team of the tournament for the losing finalists – and a fine season in Ligue 1 has left the former Udinese player brimming with self-belief.
"I've scored quite a lot of goals with my club and with the national team, and I've regained my confidence," said the man who now has a strike rate of one goal in every other one of his 40 internationals. "For a lone striker to be scoring all the time boosts your confidence."
Smiles, song and determination
Gyan is not only growing in stature on the pitch, he has become a one of the "elder statesmen" in what is the youngest team at South Africa 2010. But he sees his role as less task master than jester. "I'm the leader," revealed Gyan with a sly smile. "I'm the one who leads the singing. It makes people happy. I make people laugh to forget about football. Sometimes there might be pressure on you, but if you just forget it, you will gain confidence.
"We are really enjoying it because, for me, this is my second time at a World Cup and I'm the funniest guy in the team, you know. So I make people laugh, it's fun when we are together," he added. While saying that the relaxed attitude is what makes the team close – the players even keep tabs on each other via phone during their long European club seasons – Gyan is quick to point out that this version of the four-time African champions has a bite behind its smile. He credits the 3-0 second-round loss to Brazil at Germany 2006 with teaching the side a lesson.
"We learned a lot of things against Brazil," he said, when comparing this team to four years ago. "I think this time we went in calm and relaxed because we had studied before, so we knew what we were going to do. I think there is a big difference in that we've gained a bit of experience in the World Cup."
Gyan also dismisses the idea that pressure may now creep into the team after the surprise sprung on Serbia, a team many tipped as dark horses in the tournament. "We are better in the world now, too," he explained again looking back over four years of growth. "In 2006 we did quite well, we went to the next stage, but this time Ghanaians are expecting more from us. That is why we are also going like wounded lions. Like a wounded lion, you know? So I'm hoping we just qualify for the next stage and then we see what happens from there."