The manner in which Ghana’s quarter-final clash at the 2010 Fifa World Cup was eventually decided felt pretty ironic.
For a game so intense — featuring a scarcely believable end to extra-time — Sebastian Abreu’s winning panenka, at the end of an emotionally draining series of penalties, seemed a rather causal denouement for such dense drama.
Twenty-seven players had had a kick of the ball by the time it was all over, all but one — more on him a little later — of whom were on the pitch when that heartbreaking final whistle went.
Andre Ayew, Ghana’s new kid on the block, was one of those who had no part at all.
Ayew was only 20 at the time, with just about as many senior caps to his name, but he was already one of the first names on the Ghana team-sheet, thanks to the technical brilliance and sterling leadership he had combined to excellent effect at such a tender age.
Some nine months earlier, Ayew had skippered Ghana’s most successful U-20 team to World Cup glory in Egypt, and had gone on to feature quite prominently at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) where Ghana went all the way to the final.
But the senior World Cup, hosted by South Africa later that year, was the biggest stage, by far, that Ayew had graced, and he made his mark.
His contribution to the first two goals Ghana scored at that tournament, against Serbia and Australia, had been significant. And it was his assist, delivered from deep, that Asamoah Gyan picked up to score the goal against the USA which made Ghana only the third African side to be reckoned among any World Cup’s best eight teams.
A yellow card picked up in that game, however, meant Ayew would miss the historic date with Uruguay, restricted to spectating and his place taken by the older guy who he had dislodged from the starting XI, Sulley Muntari (who, well, went on to score the first of the game’s two goals).
Ayew, though, was no passive observer.
Up in the stands, he was as frantic as his colleagues down on the grass, biting his nails while watching a certain Luis Suarez (the 27th player referred to earlier) deny Ghana a last-gasp goal with his hand before getting sent off for it, Gyan miss the resulting spot-kick, and the Black Stars lose in the ensuing shootout.
He must have itched to play, but when Ayew finally had a feel of the pristine Soccer City turf under his feet that night, it was only to share in his teammates’ misery, doing what he could to console them — Gyan, particularly, the most desolate of them all.
And Ayew must have wondered, as did his famous father, Abedi, after missing the 1992 Afcon final against the Ivory Coast for the same reason: could he have made a difference?
Twelve years and almost another 100 international appearances later, Ayew had a chance to answer that question, albeit belatedly, when Ghana faced Uruguay again at the World Cup.
This was a largely new generation of La Celeste, without many of those who had battled Ghana more than a decade prior, but retaining enough veterans — Suarez included — to make this feel like what most Ghanaians wanted it to be: a sequel, the opportunity to exact vengeance.
The Ghana team had only one remnant of the 2010 squad, Ayew, now the captain, and he made it clear in advance that revenge wasn’t foremost on his mind.
“For me, I just want to get into the next stage, so if it was revenge or not, we would go with the same determination and the same desire to win because we want to get to the next stage,” he told GNA Sports.
“Where I am now, I’m not looking back, but I’m just looking at what’s coming on Friday. I don’t want to talk about the past, I just want to focus on what’s coming and how to win.”
That Friday was, well, yesterday, when the last two games to determine which team — South Korea the third — joined Portugal from Group H through to Qatar 2022’s Round of 16 took place, and the Black Stars went into that three-way race with the wind in their sails.
They had more points (three) than Uruguay and South Korea (one apiece), and a win — even a draw, depending on how the Koreans fared in the other game taking place simultaneously, against Portugal — would be enough to get them that solitary ticket.
Even before both teams took to the field, though, Uruguay had gotten the game underway, psychologically, offering a bait — a distraction, maybe — that they knew Ghana would struggle to resist: Suarez, the old enemy.
For the pre-match press conference, in what was surely a calculated move, Uruguay sent out Suarez, knowing very well most of the questions he’d get asked by the journalists present would have little to do with the upcoming game. Not one to shy away from the spotlight, Suarez played along, serving some juicy soundbites on the subject.
And on matchday, 35-year-old Suarez, used rather sparingly across Uruguay’s first two games at this World Cup, was named captain (Diego Godin, the usual skipper and another of the handful of 2010 survivors, curiously omitted).
There Suarez stood, side by side — shoulder to shoulder — with Ayew as the two men led their respective sides out of the Al Janoub Stadium’s bowels.
Would Ayew, as he’d promised, be able to hold his nerve, focusing, not on the man beside him, but on the assignment ahead?
These days, Ayew appears to have lost quite a few paces, no longer capable of the high-octane football he once delivered so consistently.
As an elderly statesman, though, he remains the team’s rallying point, the guy almost always in the right place mentally; one look at him, at any stage during a game, and you could gauge, more or less, what the Black Stars’ general state of mind is.
If he could keep it together, surely, they all could.
That steely resolve was tested about 15 minutes in, when Ghana were awarded a penalty as a consequence of Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet tripping Mohammed Kudus, the Black Stars’ creative spark, in the box.
Ayew, whose job it was to take that kick, had time to think long and hard about just how he’d do so. One fine swing of his left foot wouldn’t be enough to dispatch this penalty, he knew, given the context that framed this fixture; a clear head would be a far more valuable asset.
Gyan, against the same opponents, had fluffed his lines in that unforgettable quarter-final, and Ghana was still counting the cost after a dozen years. The circumstances this time were different, true, but the consequences of this penalty were just as immense as Gyan’s.
On those broad shoulders of his, Ayew must have felt, not just the weight of expectation, but of history.
The Uruguayans, unsurprisingly, made the task no easier for him.
Suarez — well, who else? — was in German referee Daniel Siebert’s face almost as soon as the official had returned from assessing a VAR review of the incident on the pitch-side monitor, in protest. Darwin Nunez, Suarez’s heir apparent, got booked for trying to rough up the penalty spot, despite the best attempts of the Ghana players to guard it.
Yet after all that, Ayew, all alone, had a nation’s pain to purge. It’s hard to remember him ever missing a penalty for Ghana, such is his accuracy and single-mindedness in these situations, and there was every confidence he’d get this, too, right — despite him opting for not much of a run-up.
The creeping shot that followed, though, was tame enough for Rochet to smother, before the Uruguayan defence comfortably mopped up the spilled ball.
Ghana had missed another penalty against Uruguay — an unwanted World Cup record — and even though they had well over an hour to collect themselves together and still hit the opposition where it hurt, there just wasn’t enough mental fortitude with which to do so.
Ayew faded out of the game and wasn’t to return for the second half, along with Jordan, his brother.
The pair had given Suarez, in the exchange of pleasantries before kick-off, the coldest treatment of any players in the Ghanaian lineup. Now they could only watch their colleagues try — in vain — to come back from two goals down.
Both had been scored before recess by Flamengo star Giorgian De Arrascaeta, but they owed just as much to Suarez’s enduring brilliance.
He’d set up the first, inadvertently, after seeing his shot poorly dealt with by Ghana keeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi; the ball was almost goal-bound from there, before De Arrascaeta ensured it arrived at that destination by nodding in from close range.
The second was more of an assist in the purest sense of the word, a peach of one, with Suarez looping the ball intelligently over Ghana’s defence to De Arrascaeta, who struck clean a first-time volley past Ati-Zigi.
Suarez, in a game that was supposed to have him in a furnace, played with a coolness no other player exuded; for further proof of the ice that ran through his veins in that charged atmosphere, see the nutmeg he sent through Inaki Williams’ legs at some point in the first half.
“We know how to beat [Ghana],” he had bragged before the game.
As he was subbed off, shortly after the hour mark, Suarez was safe in the knowledge that he’d helped place Uruguay firmly on the path to walking that talk — and win they did, just not by the margin required for it to amount to much.
The decisive act on the evening belonged to South Korea who, in Al Rayyan, had seen Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Hwang Hee-chan — picked out by a delightful Son Heung-min assist — steal a late lead against Portugal.
As that lead steadily morphed into a winner, and that news filtered into Al Wakrah, Uruguay’s sense of urgency — having dulled under the ultimately false impression that they’d done enough — went up several notches, in a bid to find that extra goal that would swing the advantage their way.
Ghana, resigned to defeat by this point, channeled all their effort into blocking the aggressive Uruguayan attack from achieving that singular aim. The objective of getting one over Uruguay by beating them had failed, but Hee-chan’s goal cracked open another chance to do so — i.e., stop them from scoring a third — and Ghana weren’t letting that, too, slip.
That was just about the only thing Ghana managed to do successfully on the day, ultimately taking Uruguay down with them. Suarez wept — just as many did, by his design, all those years ago — even before full-time, the prospect of an anti-climax to his four-edition, bittersweet affair with the World Cup looming.
Stuck on the bench, he couldn’t lift even a finger — never mind a hand — to help.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way… not at this stage… and certainly not against this opponent.
And while this was not exactly the form Ghanaians would have imagined revenge to take, they gladly embraced it; the inquisition about how their team finished bottom of the group on a second consecutive World Cup appearance would come later.
They’d had the last laugh — the best laugh, as the idiom goes — at the expense of Suarez and Co. Call them petty, if you want, but his tears were what they’d waited so long to see.
And here they flowed, freely; so freely, in fact, that the pretty sideshow of the rest of the Uruguayan team fuming at the officials post-match over perceived injustice — oh, the irony! — felt like somewhat less compelling entertainment.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks