Hours before kick-off the fields around Soccer City swelled with South Africans switching allegiance for the day. Youthful faces were painted red, yellow and green. Older hands draped themselves in Ghana scarves and flags. And everyone seemed to enjoy randomly shouting: "Go Ghana! Go Ghana!"
It felt like the start of a party. A party that was brought to an abrupt and painful end before midnight when, with the last kick of the penalty shootout, Uruguay's substitute Sebastián Abreu scooped a perfect "Panenka" into the net.
As the Uruguayans celebrated, the stadium emptied in a heartbeat. It is hard to overstate how much people here wanted Ghana to become the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final. Much emotional energy had been spent and now there was nothing left.
For most South Africans, Bafana Bafana's first-round exit was an uppercut to the solar plexus, and when Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon exited soon afterwards many locals were losing interest – until Ghana gave them a second wind. Airwaves were full of supportive voices and newspapers such as the Sowetan and the Daily Sun used their front pages to urge the team on. "Africa Unite – Black Stars carry continent's dream" and "We're all Ghana fans today" screamed headlines. Placards urging Ghana to make Africa proud were everywhere in the stadium.
After the heartbreak of the penalty shootout, their manager, Milovan Rajevac, was pragmatic. "The result is something that has made us very proud, we have a great future ahead and great young players. This is a sporting injustice, but today I congratulate Uruguay."
However the 84,017 crowed were rather less measured. Whenever Ghana surged forward, vuvuzelas would discordantly reverberate to excited cries, while every time a Uruguay player went down under a challenge there were pantomime boos. Those shouts became an ear-piercing cacophony of joy when Ghana won a penalty deep into extra time when Luis Suárez handled on the line – only for Asamoah Gyan to smash his penalty against the crossbar.
The early signs had been ominous. Ghana, without the suspended Jonathan Mensah and Andre Ayew, the 20-year-old midfielder who has arguably been their best player in the tournament, hardly got out of their half in the opening 30 minutes. During this period their goalkeeper, Richard Kingson, juggled Suárez's shot before holding on at the second attempt and was called upon to make an instinctive save when Isaac Vorsah nearly headed into his own net and then tipped over a Suárez shot on the turn. The 4-2-3-1 formation which Rajevac has used so well in this World Cup was creaking.
But, having absorbed significant punishment without going down, Ghana pushed off the ropes. Within the space of a minute, Vorsah's header missed Uruguay's left-hand post by millimetres while Gyan's shot flew past the right-hand post by a similar margin. Suddenly the shrieks around Soccer City were reminiscent of a Beatles concert in the mid-1960s.
Shortly afterwards, Sulley Muntari's 40-yard shot flew into the bottom corner of Uruguay's net and Ghana, 100-1 outsiders before this tournament, were ahead. Suddenly Soccer City was transformed into a African version of Last Night of the Proms as flags waved furiously. It did not last. Diego Forlán's free-kick and a dramatic penalty shootout saw to that.
Critics will point out that Ghana only scored two goals in the group stages, both from fortuitous penalties. But, having given Germany an almighty fright in their final Group D game, they deservedly beat the United States in extra time and they threw everything at Uruguay. There was plenty of verve and athleticism last night but rather less composure in front of goal. With a decent centre-forward and a fit Michael Essien, who knows how far they might have gone?
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