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World Cup 2010: Ghana weeps, but remains hopeful
Euan Ferguson - 3 years ago

Well, it could have been a bit more dramatic. I'm just not sure quite how. Perhaps the fat moon rushing to join us in the streets of Accra, hauling itself down urgently on a vast golden string; or the grass on the pitch suddenly turning to dragons' teeth. As it was, for my poor heart, that last-minute crossbar shot was enough. There was actually a strange nanosecond of silence, before the roar of pain. We all looked at each other, the thousands crushed beneath the big screen at the top of the hill in the Osu area, gathering breath and tensing tendons for that inept sulk-shout-punch of anguish: and, as ever, when high drama has just happened, that awful split-second exchange of human glances, human knowledge. Knew it was going to happen. Knew it was going to happen.

By this stage there was something approaching drama fatigue among these Ghanaian crowds. There had been a surfeit: people were gasping at it, fed up with holding their breath. The ensuing penalty shoot-out was, here on the grim dusty streets of Osu, where even the potholes have potholes, oddly low-key, fraught with knowledge. Knew it was going to happen.

It didn't stop the crowds raising the second-biggest cheer of the night – Sulley Muntari's thumper just before half time had sent to the skies a 10-minute yelp of hope – for Asamoah Gyan (pictured), when this man, who'd hit the crossbar with that last-chance penalty, and thus missed the goal which would have done it – which would have sent Ghana into the semis and into history – strode up with, to my mind, unparallelled courage to take the first shoot-out penalty. People were not just cheering but solemnly applauding: warm astonished handclaps, all around – from the woman selling burgers to the 12-year-old who wanted to climb on to my shoulders to see. They applauded at the fact he hadn't slunk away, with his special pain.

Gyan scored, quickly and gloriously. But not enough of the others did. There was a blister of hope, in this shoot-out, when Uruguay's Maximiliano Pereira blundered it over. There were 10 seconds of dancing. Everyone looked around for someone to hug. One big man did a double-take at me, at my one white face in those 2,000, then went with instinct, and my helpless smile, and lifted me three clean feet into the air. But there was a feeling, still, that we knew what was going to happen, with the penalties, which are never about football, only about drama. As always, being a Scot, I knew the side I wanted to win would lose. I do hope I didn't jinx it.

Soon, so soon, there were just the ghosts. The ending was sudden, the misery unpalatable, and there were only ghosts. You could almost waltz with the ghosts of what might have been. The dances that weren't being danced. The hugs that weren't being shared, or the kisses being kissed, or the music being made, not the cars being crashed. You could feel the ghosts of what could have been – so, so easily, just three inches lower – because the real thing had been there all day. The build-up had started at noon, and then there had been all of this – dances, music, kissing, crashes, hope – since about three, here in Accra.

It's pronounced, as I'm sure you already knew, with the accent on the final 'a', not in a way to echo "acrid", though the second would be entirely suitable. This is not a pretty capital. A shanty town reproaches you from the right for the first two miles in from the airport; and there was monsoon rain on Friday's dawn when I arrived, and mud, and misery. The mud changed later, when the sun came out. Not a pretty capital, but one of the better ones, in one of the better countries. Ghana didn't just come close to being the first African nation to make the semis of the World Cup: it came breathtakingly, heartstoppingly close

Everyone is proud of their team, yes, but are also, warily, proud of their country. I can stand accused of staggering ignorance, and a staggeringly patronising attitude, in linking the success of the football to the success of the country, but I'll so stand. Ghana has reasonable reserves, mineral and the rest. That'll be why it was known, with badly-coded glee after the British stole it, as the Gold Coast. It has now found oil, more being found by the day. But everyone I met was keen to stress that this would amount to nothing but greed and death had the politics not worked.

The most interesting of all those I met was a 25-year-old, Manasseh Azure Awuni, a recent graduate journalist, who could hardly stop telling me of his pride that Reporters Without Borders recently granted Ghana "approved" status – first state in Africa – for having an acceptably free press. Azure covered the last elections, and says there was no chance of corruption, because the media were monitoring each shout and the police are genuinely independent.

"I think that it is not too fanciful to see a better political system making a better football team. We are not saints, in this country – far from it. But it is a cleaner country than so many."

Time and again I was told that at the last knife-edge election, when there was a chance of civilian uprising – oh, the political differences are even more woollily defined than in Britain; you couldn't split the two main parties on policy, it's all family and history and loyalties – the decision to continue with democracy prevented Ghana from slipping into tragedy. "Look at our neighbours. At Côte d'Ivoire. Nigeria. The way it can go. And this follows down to the team.

"We have less corruption, at the GFA [Ghana Football Association] level; it's pretty clean. Less than those in many countres in Africa, who want the benefits they saw of those before, who were corrupt, more interested in a big car or a new house than in football, or their country. So we have a young team taught to play as a team. I don't know how it will work out tonight, but I know there will be a strong game, as a team." There was.

Round the corner, by a man called Ydiban, I was also told of the way in which they all seem to think the country's psyche has helped the nation as footballers. "In a way, it's a good thing that [Michael] Essien wasn't here. This team does not have egos, or huge houses. It is a team. It is Ghana, just talking about Ghana, and nobody is spoiled."

After the shoot-out, the loss, the disappointment, the ghosts, the unplayed music, I walked back down the hill with the resigned reluctant thousands. Incredibly stoic, phlegmatic, well-behaved. It was like Switzerland, if Switzerland had fewer mountains and a good deal more burning rubbish. And I felt safer than I do in Rotherhithe.

I plodded that long mile back down the hill from Osu, doing a more than fair impression of a man who's got too many stones in his left shoe and is trying to translate in mime the word "desultory" to a Give Us A Clue audience – please don't get me wrong, Uruguay, nothing against you, it's just that I love an underdog – one exhausted young soul walking towards me lifted his vuvuzela and pointed it cheekily right into my face. They do this to show they like you. I think. He couldn't work it: not a sound came out. We shared shrugs with differing degrees of disappointment.

Then yesterday morning, in the slums around the Kwame Nkromah junction, where too many buzzards swing overhead, never screeching, never going hungry, in Accra, in Ghana, under this confusing African sky, where the clouds move ever-too-slightly slowly for reality, the vuvuzelas started up again.

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

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