I lived in Ghana back in 1998, so their match against Uruguay was a real threat to my usual pan-Latin American approach to World Cup soccer fandom. I respect their game, and adore the country. I felt uncomfortable rooting against them, and I would’ve supported them against any team besides the U.S. or a Latin American side. Like everyone else, I was hoping to see an African side go through, and who knows what this marvelous, hard-working team might have accomplished with a healthy Michael Essien in the midfield. Still, the unlikely prospect of four South American semifinalists had awakened some quixotic Bolivarian dream deep in my chest, and even after Brazil’s loss, I found myself, almost against my will, supporting Uruguay. Fútbol, as I wrote earlier, is cruel, but this was another order of magnitude. One of the cruelest matches I’ve ever seen. I offered a friend of mine—a Ghana supporter—one of these platitudes, but she wasn’t having it: “Soccer,” she said, “is a little too much like life for my tastes…”
We have Luís Suárez and his handball to thank for the dramatic finish to what was already a dramatic and very entertaining match. I’ve read some criticism of Suárez, but anyone who’s ever played the game, or who understands the stakes, knows he had no choice. This is not cheating. It’s what a coach of mine once called “a professional foul.” Suárez committed an infraction, and the ref immediately and appropriately sent him off. FIFA is looking into suspending him more than one game, which would be a shame, considering Suárez has been one of the tournament’s more lethal goal scorers, but certainly they have the right to sanction players who commit deliberate handballs at the goal line. That was the risk he took. In Uruguay, some newspapers are already comparing Suárez’s defensive handball to Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal. The comparison is apt: the Uruguayan striker made a split second defensive decision, and it proved to be the correct one. If Adiyiah’s header goes in, you go home; if you stop it with your hands, you’re still alive. He knew what he’d done, knew that it was gamble that most likely wouldn’t pay off—but then, that’s the nature of a gamble, isn’t it? And it was impossible not be moved by his emotional reaction to the red card and the resulting missed penalty kick—the wild shift from despair to joy seen on this video—this is part of what makes this tournament so amazing, why this year and every four years until I die, I will somehow spend a month watching the World Cup and little else. I made this promise to myself when I was a child, and I intend on keeping it. Every four years my faith in drama is renewed.
One man, I think, deserves a word of praise. Asamoah Gyan is my hero. I suppose there can be little consolation for him now, that he’s buried in a deep post-game depression. The images of his teammates trying to lift him off the pitch at the end of the match were heartbreaking. But missed penalty kicks happen. And remember: his team still had a chance to win. (Whether they deserved it or not is a question I’m not prepared to answer. There are no moral victories in fútbol. You either execute or you don’t. Ask Brazil. Ask Diego, who, sadly, will not be stripping naked and running through the streets of Buenos Aires.) After that miss, a lesser man would have crumbled, but it was Gyan who took that long walk to the penalty spot, with the full weight of his mistake on his shoulders, and calmly (okay, perhaps not calmly) knocked in Ghana’s first penalty kick of the shoot-out. He carried his team far into the tournament, and has every reason to be proud. The composure, the character required to take the first penalty of the shootout, and convert it—after having missed the potential game-winner just moments before—is almost inconceivable. There’s a tragic luster to the achievement, but it is without question one of the most beautiful and admirable moments of the tournament for me.