NATAL, Brazil -- It is easy to forget, for all its breathlessness about love and unity, that the World Cup is a zero-sum game. That hard fact is especially easy to forget when you win. At Monday night's game between the U.S. and Ghana, one large Ghanaian section had danced and swayed and sung from the opening touch. They had continued their celebration uninterrupted even through halftime, even after John Brooks had scored his late and improbable goal. They had remained buoyant and hopeful until the final whistle brought ecstasy to Philadelphia and Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, and at last silence to them. The game hadn't been a must-win only for the Americans.
For so many reasons, Ghana needed this. In 2010 in South Africa, one of the most memorable games of that tournament had ended in a terrible Ghanaian defeat in the quarterfinal against Uruguay. It's hard to describe the feeling of that night now, four years later. It wasn't just one section of the stadium in Johannesburg that had danced and swayed and sung. It felt as though the building itself had been moving as one. Ghana was Africa's last great hope -- had felt destined to become the first African team to reach the World Cup's final four, and on African soil. Then Luis Suarez stopped what would have been the winning goal with his hands, and Asamoah Gyan's penalty smashed against the crossbar.
If you want to see a man's complete understanding that his life has changed in an instant, watch the video of Gyan watching that ball. He follows it not just with his eyes but his whole face. The ball hits the bar and sails almost straight up into the African sky. Gyan tracks it before he can no longer stomach the sight, covering his eyes with his hands, and later tearing at his jersey with his teeth, and later still, after Ghana had lost the agonizing shootout, falling to the ground in a heap, the entire stadium having gone down with him.
Gyan had said before this World Cup that he still thinks about that night when it's quiet and his regret sees the opportunity to surface. Maybe that's why the Ghanaians never stopped with their noise here in Natal -- perhaps silence wouldn't just signal defeat for them, but risked inviting it. Gyan and his country and even his continent had viewed this tournament, starting with the game against the Americans, as their chance for redemption. He had done his part, too, a lovely little back-heel to Andre Ayew in the 82nd minute that gave his team a chance. And then a young American's dream somehow came true instead.
How did it feel in Ghana in the middle of another sickening night, the electricity having been rationed so that the power wouldn't go out during the game? What did it sound like in Accra and Ashaiman and Madina when John Brooks scored? The Black Stars had twice finished off U.S. World Cup hopes, so in American eyes they are the heartbreakers. But the truth is the Ghanaians rank among the World Cup's most heartbroken, and now their hearts are broken again. You just have to be somewhere quiet enough to hear it.