In the very last minute of extra time, Dominic Adiyiah headed what should have been the winner for Ghana. The ball, without doubt, was going in. But Uruguay striker Luis Suarez got in the way – with both hands: “The best save of the World Cup," he said later, not the hand of God, “the hand of Suarez.”
It was a decision that would keep Uruguay in the World Cup and would change many lives forever. Suarez was sent off and Ghana was given a penalty. The penalty before the penalties, as we know now. When Ghana’s forward Asamoah Gyan was about to take the shot, a whole continent held its breath. Seconds later, the silence in and outside of the stadium was eerie - after he had only hit the crossbar.
It will go into the annals of the World Cup as the crossbar that broke Africa’s heart. The historic weight of the moment was disproportional to the margin of error that tilted the psychological balance in Uruguay’s favor. Ghana had literally been inches away from becoming the first African nation ever to advance to the World Cup semi-finals. But it was not meant to be.
The ensuing penalty-shoot out was nerve-wrecking and heart-wrenching. Gyan himself showed tremendous character when he stepped up again and coolly converted the first of Ghana’s penalty kicks. But two of his team mates failed to score, Ghana eventually lost, and the scenes of inconsolable players as they broke down overwhelmed by a sudden and all-consuming fatigue were hard to stomach. It was – as the ESPN commentator put it – the cruelest tournament exit ever witnessed at a World Cup. Even some neutral spectators shed tears. And how could you not?
In sports as in life, losing is part of the game. Yet football might be the sport with the biggest emotional roller coaster-rides. Because there is so much room for human error (of both referees and players), victory and defeat, drama and tragedy co-exist in close vicinity. No other sport is so unjust and stirs so much controversy. No other sport can shatter dreams and throw a whole nation into mourning within just seconds. There is no other sport with such a fine line between heroism and embarrassment, euphoria and depression.
But there is also no other sport in which losers can win so much respect and compassion. As much as winning in style is admired by football fans, losing in style is an art in and of itself and will guarantee a permanent spot in football’s hall of fame. The most legendary teams all excelled at losing, often in dramatic defeats: FC Barcelona’s bitter loss to arch rivals Real Madrid in the European Cup final 1960, Germany receiving the infamous “Wembley Goal” 1966 against England, the Netherlands losing the World Cup final in 1972 against Germany, Bayern Munich losing by two last-minute goals against Manchester United in the Champions League final 1999, a deflated Brazil losing to France in 1998, and so forth. And at this World Cup: the spirited US against Ghana and now Ghana against Uruguay. The history of soccer would be poorer without these epic battles and the infinite sadness of those who lost them.
Of course this won’t console the Ghanaian players and fans. As Africa’s World Cup dream has come to a harsh end, here’s a reminder of how the passion of this proud team, which produced such entertaining football at this tournament, evoked the hopes and dreams of a whole continent: a poem called "The Soccer Fanatic" by the Ghanaian poet Prince Mensah, from the collection One Ghana One Voice (presented, yes, by the Ghanaian Football Association):
Goal! That is the word we want to hear for here In this sea of deafening cries Our emotions reach their highest altitudes Through good music, good people, good attitudes – Our team must win, no way around that – We need goals, goals, more goals: We must prove that we did not come here to play, We came to conquer, to seize the day, To make victory our mainstay
Goal! I love the sound of that four-letter word, the sod On which our rollercoaster moods play - Our affinity to spectacular goals, The infinity of a good match, The divinity of our soccer-love drive us Into states of consciousness where each kick, Each dribble, each foul, each whistle eat away Away our patience but still our flags sway Whether chances go green or gray
Goal! The euphoria never abates, always lightening The pensive mood, never failing the ears As we expect a pass, a shot, a goal Sudden like bright-afternoon thunder and lightning – As flashes from a thousand cameras capture When the ball crossed the line and kissed the net – The players know that they carry our hopes in each kick, They know their misses make us sick, They know only winning will do the trick
Goal! Love for this game propels the vane of our energies We will not cease now, we will not sing in vain As we scream on top of our lungs, veins drawn on our necks Losing is not an option because too much Has been invested in this, too much life and love - If eleven men can send us to soccer-heaven, We will give them our all, we will stand tall As they kick the ball, as they rise and fall, As they win in the long haul