OK, so the World Cup has passed that quality threshold now. Every game is important. Every game is good. Every game is wheat versus wheat. None of them have England in. Last night’s Ghana versus Uruguay was easily one of the matches of the tournament, in terms of sheer drama. I hate it when a game goes to penalties, but this one arrived at that unpleasant point in the most unexpected way possible. (For me anyway. You football fans probably see matches all the time that end at 1-1, move into extra time and are decided by a penalty in the dying minute after one of the opposing team’s star players handballs a goal out from the goalmouth and gets sent off, only for the team with the advantage, and who had played the best, to muff that penalty off the crossbar, sending the game into an actual penalty shoot-out.)
Like everybody else not from South America – surely! – I was behind Ghana to get through to the last four and the semi finals. Africa’s great white hope (now there’s a phrase that doesn’t translate), they had the entire home continent behind them, and ITV’s on-the-spot reporter, Ned Boulting, did a nice job of capturing the atmosphere in Accra, even though he insisted on putting his arms around two Ghanaian fans on the back of a flat-bed truck at half-time, which seemed forcefully matey. (I expect you’ll all tell me that you hate Ned Boulting now – this is the usual drill when I say I like somebody, especially one on ITV – but I have found him mostly unpatronising and at least hardworking.) Although Uruguay have more form, Ghana had more support, and when they went one-up just before half-time, thanks to a long shot from Muntari, it was a magical moment of anything-could-happen. And of course, anything did. Forlan, the most handsome player in Uruguay, equalised soon into the second half, but Ghana had way more chances, each of which they muffed. They simply couldn’t convert the chances into numbers, which was such a tragedy, as they had fire in their bellies and had been up until 1am at a Sun City casino, as Clive Tydlesley kept on reminding us. (I expect I’m not allowed to like Clive Tyledesley either, but I do, not least because he seems to be uniquely old school among commentators in describing a corner as a “corner kick,” every time. Jumpers for goalposts, indeed.)
When Asamoah Gyan crossbarred the penalty that lost Ghana the World Cup he became this tournament’s Gareth Southgate, something Adrian Chiles was keen to point out when he turned to Gareth Southgate back at the coffee table. Southgate had a glint of empathy in his eye. Am I allowed to like him? I don’t really like his geography teacher’s tank top, but I sort of admire him for sticking to his own style. Marcel Desailly, born in Accra, and a very fair but passionate supporter of his team throughout, was in bits. He was still quick to nobly congratulate the South American winners, even though Suarez had attempted to become this tournament’s Maradona.
The penalty shoot-out was typically horrible to witness. I didn’t much like the Uruguayan keeper Muslera’s psychological tactic of saying “Come on! Impress me!” with his arm gestures. He deserved to let them all in. He only let one in, which, in the irony of all ironies, the bold and brave Gyan had taken, as if to remove the bad juju. (Oh, I thought Muslera was a bit of a prick when he congratulated his own crossbar for keeping Gyan’s previous penalty out. These Catholics! They’ll bless anything.)
So, tears at bedtime for Gyan (he seems inconsolable, as well he might) and, well, the whole of Africa. It would be melodramatic and convenient to say that the vuvuzelas fell silent for the first time, but they didn’t. Richard Kingson, Ghana’s keeper, who apparently plays for Equatorial Wigan, did a fine job, as did they all. And he had to play in a top that looked as if it was off the shoulder.
Onwards and upwards then. (Ghana Uruguay my first World Cup match without beer or cider or rose accompaniment. Didn’t need it.)