In a wide-ranging interview with The National's John McAuley, Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan recounts his missed penalty at the 2010 World Cup following Luis Suarez's handball. 'I'm over it now, I'm stronger for it, but I can never forget what happened' he says.
Ghana ‘hate’ Luis Suarez after 2010 World Cup, says Asamoah Gyan
It is one of the indelible images of South Africa, 2010.
Ghana were on the verge of becoming the first African side to qualify for a World Cup semi-final – just a penalty kick away from making history at Africa’s World Cup.
It had been a frantic final few moments of a last-eight encounter with Uruguay. A teeming Soccer City had dragged its continental counterparts through 120 minutes when, with the score at 1-1 and in the dying seconds of extra time, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez used his right hand to slap away Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header on the line.
Suarez was sent off, but a sure goal became a not-so-sure penalty kick and a deserved victory withered in the cold Johannesburg night. Asamoah Gyan, for so long Ghana’s protagonist, placed the ball on the spot, but as the host continent held its breath, he crashed his shot against the crossbar. It was the last kick of the game. Suarez stood by the tunnel, watching on the stadium’s giant screen. He erupted in celebration.
In the ensuing shoot-out – admirably, Gyan converted the first penalty – Uruguay triumphed 4-2. As Sebastian Abreu cheekily chipped the winning spot-kick and was buried below a sea of sky blue, Gyan was in the centre of the pitch, inconsolable.
What had been a World Cup of significant individual success – he had scored three times, including two penalties and a thunderous, half-volleyed winner against the United States in the last 16 – had ended in despair.
“It was a painful moment,” Gyan says, in an exclusive interview with The National, little more than two weeks before he finds himself back on football’s main stage. “For me, my family and the whole of Africa.
“Because we were the only African team left in the tournament and were doing great, and then we had the opportunity and we didn’t make use of it – the penalty miss and everything.”
The years since have been restorative, almost transformative. The Al Ain striker arrives in Brazil for his third World Cup still as Ghana’s primary attacking threat, but this time as captain, too.
At 28, he is the most prolific player in his country’s history, the two goals against Sudan little less than a year ago taking him past Abedi Pele’s 33-goal record.
In the interim, Gyan has added five more. During African qualification, he was the section’s top scorer.
Yet that penalty miss gnaws; it hurts and it haunts. Ghana had emerged from a group containing Germany, Australia and Serbia, beaten the US in the first knockout stage, and seemed destined to lift the cup on African soil. What a surprise. What a story. Then that miss.
“Sometimes when I’m alone, I get up and put the DVD on and start watching that game,” Gyan says. “Probably watched it 20 times until now. I wish the match could happen again because it really hurts me every time when I’m alone. It’s something that I can never forget.
“Obviously, I’m over it now, I’m stronger for it, but I can never forget what happened. I watch it over and over and over again and hope one day I can turn things around and make people happy.
“If it doesn’t happen, then that’s part of life. But if it does, I’ll be really happy for the rest of my life.”
Brazil can help exorcise those demons, help Gyan write a new chapter in what has been a largely inspired international career.
The Uruguay encounter was a setback – much like another missed penalty at the 2012 African Cup of Nations, which prompted a brief “indefinite break” from international football – but it could also be the making of him.
It has been forgotten among the rubble of its conclusion, but that World Cup had elevated Gyan to another level. He scored three goals, was nominated for the Ballon d’Or and was voted African footballer of the year by the BBC. Perversely, it was Gyan’s “greatest year”.
“I just pray to God that should happen again this time,” he says. “Because, mentally, I’m more prepared to prove a point again. It’s very early to talk about what’s going to happen in Brazil, but that is my ambition, to prove a point once again and to show my fans and Ghanaians what I’m capable of.
“But before this can happen it all depends on the players playing our normal game and fighting like the way we fought in 2010. Play our hearts out and just be tactically disciplined. Then we’ll have a good tournament and everything will happen naturally.”
Gyan is wary of bold predictions, understandably after being drawn in Group G alongside Germany, Portugal and the USA.
The first match, against the USA in Natal on June 16, is the sole focus, but this emergent Ghana side are equipped to look beyond the opening three fixtures. Michael Essien, the experienced midfielder, insists it is the most talented squad he has been a part of. So, for Gyan, what would represent success this time?
“For now, I don’t really know,” he says. “We’ve got a young team and have quality players. We’ve some experienced players, who are there to support the young guys. This being my third World Cup, it is my job to pass on my experience to them. But it’s a different team altogether.
“Every time people see Ghana as the underdogs in the group and every time we prove people wrong, and this is what we’re hoping to do in Brazil once again.
“Just make sure we qualify from the group and then think ahead. That’s our goal for now.”
That and a personal pledge to banish memories of Uruguay four years ago. It is clear Gyan has spent the succeeding seasons rebuilding confidence, first at Sunderland in England and then in the UAE. But he credits much to the guidance of Baffour, his older brother, a constant throughout the strain and key to hauling Gyan back off the canvas in 2010.
“Yeah, it hurt him,” Baffour says. “But it made him a lot stronger. He’s a determined guy and he prays God gives him a good tournament. That’s always what he says: that he wants a good tournament for the country. He’s very strong mentally and right now he’s good, he’s got the experience from that World Cup.”
In truth, the rebuild from “that experience” began immediately following the initial penalty miss. Reeling amid the tension and the tumult, Gyan’s decision to take the first spot-kick in the shoot-out was remarkable. The consequences were grave. Yet he walked from the centre circle, set down the ball, took a deep breath and placed it high into the top-right corner.
“I decided to shoot the first penalty because if I didn’t that would have been most likely the end of my career,” he says. “I would’ve retired right then. Despite the miss, I was the expert penalty taker in the team, so I told myself things happen and I didn’t want to give up.
“I just wanted to show people I could still do it. I just wanted to revive my career. And that was what happened.”
But he departed Soccer City in tears, while a jubilant Suarez was hoisted on teammates’ shoulders and applauded by Diego Forlan, his captain, and Oscar Taberez, his coach. Ghanaians, though, view it differently.
“Yeah,” Gyan says, laughing. “I’m sorry to use this word, but people do hate him in my country. They had a lot of bad things to say about him and it’s very painful to cheat, but it’s part of the game. He handled the ball, but at the end of the day I wasn’t able to score the penalty, so he saved his country.
“So at that time he was a hero, but in my country he was an enemy. If I were Suarez I would have done the same thing, to save my country. Because he was there to die for his country and he succeeded. “Things happen in life, you know. Sometimes people see it from a different aspect, but life goes on. We come back stronger.”
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