Looking back on Ghana's World Cup triumphs
It took 40 years for Africa to get a guaranteed place at the World Cup, 48 before the continent had a victory to its name, 56 to move beyond the first round and 60 before it had its first quarterfinalist. But it took the continent 80 years before it unearthed what can be called its most obviously equipped global competitor: Ghana.
The Black Stars debuted at the showpiece event just eight years ago, in 2006. Three years after that, their under-20 team won the age-group World Cup and in the senior team tournament that followed they reached the quarterfinals.
That may not sound like progression which is any more worthy of praise than Cameroon's or Senegal's last eight finishes, but it is because Ghana should have been Africa's first semifinalists. They were a handball and a missed penalty away from the final four and those two events continue to haunt them, despite all they have achieved.
In an interview with The National newspaper in the UAE, where he plays his club football, Asamoah Gyan admitted to watching the DVD of that quarterfinal loss to Uruguay "probably 20 times," and still being hurt by what he sees. He brazenly claimed people in Ghana still "hate" Uruguay's Luis Suarez for using his hand to prevent what was a certain Gyan goal in the final moments of extra time in their 2010 World Cup quarterfinal. And Gyan also still laments what he should have done.
"At the end of the day, I wasn't able to score the penalty," he said. Despite temporarily giving up spot-kicking duties, he still prays he gets the chance to rectify it this time around. "Mentally I am more prepared to prove a point again."
Inspiration is often found in heartache, but Gyan may find it more pleasant to re-live the better times. At World Cups, Ghana have a healthy selection to choose from.
From their very first World Cup game, against eventual champions Italy in 2006, they received praise for their spirited showing. The BBC's match report from that game recalled that Ghana "played their part in an entertaining match," had a "confident captain" in Stephen Appiah and "were the better side after the break."
Although Ghana lost that match 2-0, they showed what they were capable of and went on to beat the Czech Republic by the same margin. Gyan scored their first goal, also their first at a World Cup, after just 70 seconds of play. Ghana's prowess was evident in that they could have gone on to net many more times in that game and forced opposing goalkeeper Petr Cech into making several saves.
They went on to put two goals past the United States in their final group match to advance to the knockout round. The encounter was tense and physical and set up a rivalry that has grown more enticing over the past eight years. Ghana were in the lead in the 22nd minute, then the U.S. equalised before Ghana converted a penalty in first-half injury time to seal the result.
In the round of 16, they met Brazil and a record-breaking Ronaldo. He became the highest scorer ever in World Cup finals with 15 goals after he put Brazil ahead inside five minutes. Ghana were overawed but for a team with the youngest average age of the tournament, 23 years and 352 days, perhaps that was to be expected.
They came back stronger and were bolstered by more youthful exuberance four years later. By then Ghana had won the under-20 World Cup against Brazil, which may have helped to exorcise any lingering ghosts after the 2006 World Cup, and they headed to the next tournament set for higher honours.
Gyan was the talisman again and scored the penalty that secured the 1-0 group stage win over Serbia. It was the first victory for an African side at Africa's World Cup and was dedicated to the entire continent. Ghana did not register another victory in their group -- a draw against Australia and defeat to Germany -- so the Serbia result became even more important in the context of their tournament. It earned them second place in their group and a date with their old rivals, the U.S.
For a second tournament in succession, one star proved better than 50. Ghana were ahead by the fifth minute through another marquee player, Kevin-Prince Boateng. But they conceded a penalty after the hour and the game went into extra time. As they had done in regulation time, Ghana surprised their opposition early on with their intensity. Gyan was the man to score the goal that put Ghana in elite company.
His memories of the goals he netted to take Ghana into the quarterfinals seem to have faded in favour of the occasion in which he failed. Gyan's miss against Uruguay remains for many Africans the moment the dream died in 2010. What they, like him, need to remember is that there is an opportunity to try again.
Ghana's 2014 group is deliciously laced with subplots. They will come up against the U.S. again. They will face Germany again and come face to face with the side that beat them in 2010 and whose squad contains a Boateng (Jerome), the brother of their own player. They will have the opportunity to show their mettle against Portugal.
If the curve continues moving in the direction it has since 2006 -- upward -- Ghana could look forward to greater returns at this tournament. And Africa could finally have its first semifinalist ... or better.