A moment of sublime greatness for Ghana football – Czech Republic 0, Ghana 2. It was a sweet, sweet victory –
it showed us the true meaning of a joy that is perfect in every respect; a victory made sweeter by the faith
it had regenerated in us, in our Black Stars.
There are certain moments in our lives that define us not as we normally are, but what we hope we could be. In ordinary life, we may be rich or poor; we may be healthy or unwell; strong or weak. But in our imagination, we can be anything we like.
On Saturday 17 June 2006, the “sleep-dreams” and the day-dreams of every Ghanaian converged into a new reality in a World Cup game in Germany. The message we got that day was that, “we are Ghanaians. We know we are great. And now, we have proved to the whole world that the feeling we’ve always harboured that we are indeed great, is not an illusion or a product of mere self-deception, but based on reality”.
YES! A 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, the nation that went into the World Cup ranked behind Brazil as Number Two in the entire world of football, by FIFA. But the victory was not the only point we made. What blew our minds was that our boys actually wiped the floor with this World Number Two footballing nation called the Czech Republic. We could have scored six or eight goals against them. But the score itself mattered little.
What struck everyone was that the Black Stars were back to their winning ways – back to the standard that won the African Nations Cup for us four times; that enabled us to draw 3-3 with Real Madrid of Spain 40 years ago; beat Blackpool of England 3-0; draw 1-1 with Argentina (summer Olympics 1964) and beat Japan 3-1 (summer Olympics 1964).
Those were the matches that built the comfortable beds upon which every Ghanaian of a certain age group could lie and dream. But instead of playing the attack-attack-attack form of football that gave us our reputation, and which springs out of our natural rhythm of play, we have often been held back by the necessities of tactics; the exigencies of so-called “total football” as played by Europeans. But we must not forget that European football is dominated by commercial considerations and so coaches there are often more interested in not losing a match than in playing football for people to enjoy.
Where had we buried that free spirit of ours with which we delighted football lovers? Our youngsters (the Under-17s) not yet spoilt by the need to impress European recruiters, would go out and bring us the Under-17 World Cup (twice). But as they grew up and got selected into the Black Stars team, they seemed to sacrifice or dissipate the skills that had won them the Under-17 championship. Some coaches took that spirit out of them and said they were being taught “discipline”.
Well, on Saturday 17 June 2006, something clicked our spirits into life, and it all came together again for us. It wasn’t easy going before the match began. The formidable reputation of the Czech Republic; the fact that Italy had torn our hopes into shreds a few days earlier; the fear that our coach would once again order our boys to play a defensive game – all these lowered our expectations.
Watching the match on TV in London was even more frustrating than the gloomy thoughts that were flooding our minds. ITV were showing it, and, of course, the producers were so certain that a match between the Czech Republic and Ghana would be such a turn-off for British viewers that they started the buildup with England’s performance in the World Cup in 1966, and followed it up with some more history – about England against Argentina. Then they cut to an American base in Germany and interviewed loads of Americans about their match with Italy, which was due to start after ours. So what about Ghana? Does it exist to ITV? They didn’t even show the national anthems being played.
To be fair, they had a pundit of African descent, Robbie Earle, former captain of Wimbledon, who managed to get a word in edgeways just before the whistle blew, and stated quite clearly that if the Ghana midfield held up, they could win the match. His hostess, the beautiful Gabby Logan, just managed to suppress a skeptical expression when Robbie said this, and I am sure some of the British people who heard him say that, must have laughed.
Well, the match went underway, kicked off by the Czechs. One or two passes by them and we had dispossessed them of the ball. Then we got a corner. A corner so early? It was almost like a joke. Ball cleared momentarily from the Czech half. But it goes back. Stephen Appiah gets it. Passes to Asamoah Gyan. Asamoah Gyan chests the ball and then lets fly. It’s in the net – GOOOOAL!
What could anyone say? The clock at least could speak – it said 1.07 minutes, though the ITV commentator put it at 70 seconds. He couldn’t add seven and sixty! I mean, it was THAT incredible. It was the fastest goal of the tournament thus far! Later, they rounded it up to two minutes! Asamoah Gyan goes to the touchline, pursued by his team-mates, and brandishes one leg to the crowd, then another in celebration! But he’s soon on the ground, his mates lying on top of one another on top of him. We can’t believe our eyes. I tell my son: “It’s like the old, old days – we used to say that ‘Kotoko is most dangerous in the first five minutes of a match’.” We yell. We shout. We punch the air. It’s Ghana 1, Czech Republic 0.
And then the “Agoro” [beautiful soccer, man to man] more or less started and wasn’t to let up for the whole 90 minutes. This was real football, for the Czechs were not about to roll over and go to sleep. They gave as much as they took. Their goal-getter, Pavel Nedved in particular, was extremely dangerous. But our efficient defence held firm. Our midfield collected balls from them and strung the play together magnificently. From man to man, across wings and into the Czech penalty box. We were just simply magnificent.
But we just couldn’t score! Chance after chance after chance came and we squandered them. In a World Cup match where you are not supposed to get more than a few chances? It was pathetic. Had we not gone ahead so early, those missed chances would have made us all cry bucketfuls of tears. So much so that the players themselves became amused when they failed to shoot into the net, as if asking themselves: “Ah, but what is happening?” Much of our failure to score more goals was also due to the amazing skill of the Czech goalkeeper, who happened to be called Petr Cech. Anyway, we overwhelmed the Czechs and could have got at least five or six or seven more goals, had Madam Luck decided to stay at our side all the time, instead of playing hide and seek with us.
Then, in the 65th minute, we swept forward (again) into the Czech box. Amoah was brought down by Ujfalusi. I thought the Argentinian referee would – as is usual when a team from a country that is regarded as “small” in football terms is playing a “big” team – ignore it. But he blew the whistle and pointed to the spot. He stayed far back out there, sending off Ujfalusi and warding off the protests of the Czechs. It was at this point that one of those bizarre incidents in football, that no one can quite explain, happened.
Asamoah Gyan wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on around him, but concentrating very hard on how to take the penalty effectively. He heard a whistle sound and thought it was for taking the penalty. So he took it. But the referee was only blowing it in relation to the sending-off incident, and in a demonstration of how difficult it is for people of different continents to understand each other’s mentality, assumed that Asamoah Gyan had deliberately kicked the penalty prematurely without waiting for him to whistle. And he ruled the goal a no-goal, and booked him into the bargain.
The ball was put back on the penalty spot for Gyan to take the penalty again. But what with his worrying over his yellow card, he didn’t focus properly and struck it – very hard, it must be conceded – against the Czech’s left-hand goal-post.
AO! We all sighed in disbelief. It should teach our boys not to ever get over-excited during a match but to remain completely aware of what is going on around the entire field. If only someone had warned Gyan to wait!
However, not at all disheartened, we continued to dominate the Czechs, and in the 82nd minute, Madam Luck said, “I’ve teased you enough, come for a kiss!” And what a sweet kiss it was! The person she chose was Sulley Muntari. When the ball went into the net, we couldn’t, of course, believe our eyes. You mean after all the chances we had lost, a proper straight-forward shot had at last entered the net?
At this stage, I asked my son to open the champagne. “Dad”, he yelled in fear, “don’t tempt fate! There’s still nine minutes to go!” “Open it!” I insisted. He opened it. And we drank it. And ninety minutes came past, as well as stoppage time. And we still held on to our two-nil lead.
It was a sweet, sweet victory – it showed us the true meaning of a joy that is perfect in every respect; a victory made sweeter by the faith it had regenerated in us, in our Black Stars.
As I write, we have disposed of our next opponents, the United States. We are now waiting for Brazil, five times world champions. Will it be champagne again, or the ash cloth? Who cares? That match against the Czechs will be there to comfort me, should the unthinkable happen. A moment of sublime beauty cannot be eradicated by winning or losing individual matches. But the ‘impossible can happen: one London Times correspondent wrote, on one of the occasions that we won the Under-17 World Championship, that “Ghana out-Brazilled Brazil”. . . We can ‘out-Brazil Brazil again!