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Ghana’s heartbreaking 2010 World Cup a decade on: ‘I wish I could erase it from my memory’

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June 26, 2010

It was a hot night in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. The sun had set, but it was still humid and dry, the air still warm, almost suffocating.

In the shanty towns and the slums, on the sandy, muddy streets, all was quiet. The tension, though, was palpable. They had been waiting for a night like this for decades: patient, hopeful and always loyal.

Seconds felt like hours and minutes like days. Buzzards flew overhead, through the night sky, unconcerned by the stifling heat.


Then there was an eruption of noise. The vuvuzelas started up again. There were shouts of joy, of disbelief. Asamoah Gyan had scored, three minutes into extra-time, against the USA, and Ghana were on the verge of a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Isaac Boateng was watching on TV at his home in Weija, a small district of Accra. When the game ended, when Ghana’s qualification was confirmed, he walked out on to the street. It was full of children, singing and dancing, and cars, horns blaring. Ghanaian flags were draped across the shoulders of men and women, broad smiles across their faces.

This was a celebration, not just a proud night for Ghana, but for Africa, too. The Black Stars had reached just one World Cup finals before South Africa 2010 – four years earlier in Germany – and that had ended with elimination in the last 16 against Brazil.

Now they had gone a step further, and the semi-finals, even, perhaps, the final, did not seem out of reach. Not least because they were to play Uruguay in the last eight, hardly the most formidable opponent.

Ghana were organised, too, a settled team with a healthy mix of young up-and-comers and experienced pros. The flair players in the side – Kevin-Prince Boateng, Andre Ayew and Gyan – were complemented by their more rugged, defence-minded teammates: the likes of Anthony Annan, Sulley Muntari and Jonathan Mensah.

Asamoah Gyan, No 3, celebrates scoring against Australia in the group stage (Getty)

They were led by Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac, a shrewd tactician who instilled real discipline in a national team that had, for so long, lacked that trait. He was appointed in 2008 and within two years had made a significant impact. In 2010, Rajevac led Ghana first to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. They were beaten 1-0 by Egypt, but it was a sign of progress.

Ghana had not – and this remains an obsession 10 years on – won Africa’s most prestigious tournament since 1982. Rajevac took them agonisingly close. And then, in the summer, he made history at the World Cup.

“Rajevac won many hearts in Ghana,” Boateng, a former Ghana Under-17s coach, tells The Independent. “The team shape was perfect and the balance between defence and attack was expertly done. He was a defensive-minded coach, and his team was known among Ghanaians as the ‘one goal project.’”

One goal was enough to beat Serbia in Ghana’s opening game. It was scored by Gyan, from the penalty spot, with five minutes of normal time remaining. He seemed unerringly cool and composed, lifting the ball into the top-left corner and sprinting away in celebration. Here was a striker full of confidence, on top of his game.

Gyan scored another penalty in the next group game, a 1-1 draw against Australia. And then came a narrow defeat against Germany. Ghana had done enough, though. They were through, as runners-up, to the last 16.

“Rajevac completely changed Ghana’s mentality,” says Boateng. “His tactics were a foundation for the team to build on and he was great at managing the players.”

Clearly, this was a team on an upward trajectory. Their only defeat, at the hands of the Germans, was perhaps the game most indicative of their growth since 2006. It was, says Boateng, a “highly technical” match, one that demonstrated Ghana’s ability to frustrate top quality opposition and counter with real verve.

Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng celebrate reaching the quarter-finals (Getty)

Victory over the US in the first knockout round led to a wave of optimism in Accra. Boateng, like millions of others in the small West African country, was swept along in it. He believed his country could reach the final. He believed they could represent the continent on the biggest stage.

First, though, they needed to beat Uruguay.

*

2 July, 2010

Michael Oti Adjei could not watch. He was so nervous that he looked away, reliant on the reaction of the crowd to tell him what had happened, either way. He heard the sound of the ball rattling the crossbar. Then there was a hush, and he knew. Gyan had missed. Adjei had gone from the cusp of ecstasy to despair.

But he had to remain professional. He was there to do a job, reporting on Ghana’s progress throughout a remarkable World Cup campaign.

Adjei had been a sports journalist for close to ten years, so he was used to the pressure that came with covering the national team. But this was different.

On 2 July 2010, he sat amongst a group of Ghanaian reporters in the press box at Soccer City, the 94,000-seater stadium in Johannesburg. It had been a tense evening, the prospect of an unprecedented semi-final so close.

And after Luis Suarez’s infamous handball to prevent a certain Ghana goal in extra-time, it seemed even closer. The Uruguay striker was sent off, forced to watch from the sidelines, his shirt pulled up to cover his face and hide the tears. Adjei and his colleagues punched the air, allowed themselves a moment to celebrate. Ghana had a penalty, with seconds left to play. It was 1-1. A goal would send them through, and Gyan had already scored twice from the spot at this World Cup.

But he missed. Adjei’s heart sunk, and he turned back to his laptop. He knew the chance had gone.

“We asked a lot of ‘what if?’ questions that day,” Adjei tells The Independent. “It was the single most painful experience for many Ghanaian football fans to date. Just the emotion of thinking Ghana were through to the semis and blowing it was devastating.”

Luis Suarez makes a save on the line (Getty)

It seemed inevitable, after the drama of Suarez’s sacrificial handball and Gyan’s miss, that Ghana would lose the penalty shootout. And that is what happened. Sebastián Abreu’s delicate Panenka sent Uruguay through. Gyan fell to his knees, in tears. The din of vuvuzelas abated, just for a moment. It was over.

Owusu Bempah Ayala was in the press box that night, too. Like Adjei, his professionalism was forgotten for a moment. The journalists, just like every other Ghanaian in the stadium, had been taken along for the ride. And they were left with an equally large pit in their stomachs.

“I wish I could erase it from my memory,” says Ayala. “My reaction was a state of denial. I was lost. To this date, watching back that scene still breaks my heart. It would have been a beautiful story, of Ghana going through and becoming the first African team in the semi-finals. It was sad, and it is still sad, knowing all that was at stake.”

It had been a journey. With each victory, Ghana’s fans grew more optimistic. It was meant to be. This was Africa’s World Cup; it was the arrival of the continent as a footballing force. But the ending could hardly have been crueller.

Adjei and Ayala had followed from the start. When they had had time to reflect, to look back on the tournament, both came to the conclusion that it was Ghana’s zenith, the best team, and the best year, in the country’s football history.

“It was awesome,” says Ayala. “It was like a celebration of Africa and a proud moment to be a Ghanaian. The solidarity from the whole continent was special too. And the impact in Ghana was massive: more love, more laughs and a great feeling over the length and breadth of the country. We were all united and you couldn’t identify any political divides. It was simply an awesome time to be Ghanaian.”

For Adjei, 2010 provided a welcome surge of optimism. “Since then, the country has reached three Afcon semi-finals and one final,” he adds. “I think eventually Ghana will win that tournament. And after what I saw in 2006 and 2010, I think if Ghana gets its organisation right, it can go one step further than the quarter-final at the World Cup.”

In the moment, the Uruguay defeat was demoralising. It felt entirely undeserved, and the players, understandably, took some time to get over it. But they did not dwell on the loss back in Ghana. Instead, they celebrated. The players were idolised and lionised. It was a time of hope, not sadness.

*

6 July 2010

For Daniel Agyei, the best part was coming home. He did not play a game at the World Cup, but he still felt part of something, still felt the sense of achievement.

When he and his teammates landed at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport, they were greeted by thousands of dancing Ghanaians. “There were more people there than there were in the stadiums,” Agyei tells the Independent.

This was new to him. When he was called up by Rajevac for the tournament, Agyei, a talented goalkeeper playing for Liberty Professionals in Ghana’s capital, had made only two caps. He had been a part of the team that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, but he was still only 20 years old, inexperienced, uninitiated.

The World Cup in South Africa, though, was an overwhelmingly positive experience. He remembers the friendships he formed with Mensah and Isaac Vorsah and Eric Addo. He was close to Richard Kingson, too, Ghana’s first choice goalkeeper and eleven years Agyei’s senior.

It was a formative experience. But there was still, under the surface, a sense of disappointment when the players walked off the plane and were greeted by scores of jubilant Ghana fans. They had wanted more.

“We wanted to get to the final,” Agyei says. “There was a positive vibe throughout and that helped us win games. But we hoped to get to the final. That was the dream.”

The dream did not become a reality, but Ghana were still treated like heroes back home. Later, when the dust had settled, there was a parade through the streets of Accra. And a concert was held in their honour shortly after, too.

Asamoah Gyan misses from the spot after Luis Suarez’s handball (Getty)

“You’ve really held high the flag of Ghana and the entire African continent,” deputy sports minister Nii Nortey Duah told the players.

The reaction was understandable. No African team had ever got so far at a World Cup, and for Ghana it felt truly significant. Everything had fallen into place, slotted together, for an almost perfect tournament. A place in the semi-finals, even the final, would have been an unexpected and welcome bonus. But the pride of the Ghanaian supporters was not dented by the misfortune of the Uruguay game.

Ten years on, the World Cup in South Africa remains one of Ghana’s greatest achievements. It was a moment in time, a year, mostly, of celebration and togetherness.

The only disappointment is that it did not last. In 2014, the Black Stars could not progress beyond the group stages, and in 2018 they did not even qualify for the World Cup. They have fared better in the Afcon, but the overwhelming sense of optimism that swept across the country in 2010 has gone.

Accusations of corruption in the Ghanaian Football Association have not helped. In 2018, the GFA’s president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was caught on film receiving what appeared to be a bribe of $65,000 from an undercover journalist posing as a businessman.

Nyantakyi resigned as a result of the scandal, later banned from football for life by Fifa having been found guilty of bribery, corruption and conflict of interest.

In early January 2019, though, one of the reporters involved in the investigation, Ahmed Hussein-Suale, was shot and killed. He had been part of a team led by journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Together, they had exposed deep-rooted corruption in Ghanaian football, highlighting officials, referees and coaches who had allegedly accepted bribes to fix matches.

This has, inevitably, been the focus of attention in Ghana. The halcyon days of 2010 have been replaced by a murky underworld of wrongdoing and cynicism. In March, too, it was reported by Pulse Ghana that the GFA are in debt of over 11 million Ghanaian Cedi, equal to approximately £1.5m.

Fans and journalists in Ghana, then, can be forgiven for feeling nostalgic about the past, and a little pessimistic about the future. “We have failed to build on the appeal that the 2010 World Cup gave us,” says Ayala. “There’s no legacy, no infrastructure to show for it. Football here now hangs on a thin hope to relive those days again.”

In Ghana, though, there is resolve. Anas and his team of reporters have worked doggedly to expose corruption and to bring those abusing their power to justice. And the end result, they hope, is a functional, law-abiding football association, one that could set things in motion for a return to the heights of 2010. For now, though, memories of South Africa will have to suffice.

The players will certainly not forget. Agyei is 30 now, no longer the fresh-faced goalkeeper who was so bright-eyed and overawed when he joined up with his teammates for his first international tournament.

But he still reflects on the World Cup with boyish excitement. It was his dream. It was the dream of millions back home, in Accra and Kumasi and Tamale. And, for a few weeks in June and July, it felt like it might never end.

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