Three years may have passed since the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but the adjective ‘historic’ remains an apt description of so many features of this memorable competition. Indeed, it was the first edition of the global showpiece to be held on African soil and was capped by a first triumph for Spain yet, for Ghana at least, their own major 'first' slipped agonisingly out of their grasp.
The Black Stars seemingly had everything in their favour to become the first African nation to reach the last four, only for their run to be blocked at the quarter-final stage by Uruguay in dramatic and extremely cruel fashion. Andre Ayew experienced that painful end to Ghana’s South African adventure first-hand and, even amidst his involvement in his country’s qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, what happened against La Celeste clearly still rankles.
“No, it’s not been forgotten and perhaps it never will,” the Marseille midfielder told FIFA.com. “The hardest thing is the way we were knocked out. If you lose a match because they’re the better team then that’s that, you can put it behind you. But I think that the way things panned out, we deserved to be in the semi-finals.”
‘The way’ Ayew alluded to ended thus: with the scores level at 1-1 in injury time of the second half of extra time, a goal-bound effort from Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah was blocked by the hand of Luis Suarez on the line. The Charrúa forward was duly handed his marching orders and a penalty awarded to the Black Stars, only for Asamoah Gyan to thump the spot-kick against the bar and send the match to a shootout – where it was the South Americans who prevailed.
“Of course, for a moment we all thought it: we all already saw ourselves in the semi-finals,” admitted Ayew, who had to sit out the game due to suspension. “We already felt like we were on our way once Sulley Muntari opened the scoring from 40 metres out [on the stroke of half-time].
"Even when they levelled [via Diego Forlan on 55 minutes] we never stopped believing and, once we got that penalty, we thought ‘that’s that, we’re through’. What’s more, Gyan is a penalty specialist. But there you go – the ball hit the bar and went over.”
Sympathy for Suarez
An African team had never been so close to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals, but that missed penalty and the shoot-out that followed extended the continent’s wait for a last-four berth for another four years at least. Two-time world champions Uruguay, for their part, fell at the next hurdle against the Netherlands, with Suarez’s actions against Ghana earning him hero status back home but widespread condemnation across much of the rest of Planet Football.
Ayew, despite his huge disappointment at the time, does not hold a grudge against the Liverpool striker. “What will stick in the memory is that Suarez made a heroic gesture. He sacrificed himself and in the end it worked, because they went through,” said the player voted third in South Africa 2010’s Best Young Player Award, behind Thomas Muller and Giovani Dos Santos.
“He [Suarez] left his team with ten men and gave away a penalty in the last minute, but it worked out for them,” Ayew went on. “When the Uruguayans got home they were given a heroes’ welcome. There was a kind of injustice done against us but they took a risk and it paid off. Obviously Ghanaian supporters and perhaps even the whole of Africa were angry at Suarez, but it was an action that us players can understand. If it had been me in that situation, perhaps I’d have done something similar.”
Even so, the culmination of that encounter on 2 July 2010 remains painfully fresh in the minds of the Ghana players. “We’ve never spoken about that penalty to Gyan and we never will either,” said Ayew, the son of former Ghana legend Abedi Pele. “There’s no point opening the wound again. Amongst the players, we hardly ever talk about it anymore because it’s too hard to swallow. It’s very difficult to turn the page, but the time’s come to move on.”
‘Something’s not right’
Fortunately, the Black Stars can focus on their bid to reach Brazil 2014, a campaign which has them a point clear at the top of Group D after five games of the second round of African Zone qualifying. With four wins and one defeat so far – against closest challengers Zambia – a win against the Zambians on 6 September would send Ghana into the ten-team final round, from which five nations will earn a trip to Brazilian soil.
Would Ayew consider that a just reward for one of the most consistent and best-organised national sides in African football this past decade? “It’s true, a lot of people say that, but when things go well we ought to be winning trophies,” said the older brother of fellow Marseille man Jordan. “However, we’ve not won anything for years, apart from the U-20 World Cup 2009 and the same year’s African U-20 Championship.
“True, we’re always among the semi-finalists or finalists [in continental competitions]. It’s nice enough, we play well, we go far but, at the end of the day, we don’t win anything. That’s not enough for me,” he said forcefully. “We may be among Africa’s most consistent sides, but if we don’t manage to win titles then something’s not right. If we can focus a bit more on that issue, we could achieve great things.”
And if, as the saying goes, you learn more in defeat than in victory, Ayew and Co will no doubt have learned plenty from their 2010 heartbreak. But will it be enough to earn them another shot at making history come Brazil 2014?