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The moment that broke the heart of a continent

They say it only takes a second to score a goal, to become the hero, to write your name into the history books. However, blink for just a fraction of a second and the moment is gone. Such are the margins between success and failure, between elation and despair, between the semi-final and the plane home.

One man who knows that feeling intimately is Ghanaian striker, Asamoah Gyan. As the clock ticked around to the 120th minute of the World Cup quarter-final match between Ghana, the sole African nation remaining in the competition, and Uruguay, the ball was delivered into the Uruguayan penalty area. Chaos ensued as the ball ricocheted around with the Ghanaians desperately trying to force the ball over the line, and the Uruguayans similarly desperate to prevent the goal. As the ball flew towards the line, Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez, stretched out his hand to push the ball away, preventing a certain goal. The referee pointed to the spot, brandishing the red card for Suarez. The already electric atmosphere inside Soccer City threatened to blow the roof off the ground.

There could be no complaints about the decision. There were no arguments from the Uruguayans as Suarez trudged off the pitch, tears running down his face. He felt that Uruguay were out of the World Cup, and that he was to blame. It was to be Asamoah Gyan to take the penalty. He had already scored twice from the spot in the tournament thus far, against Serbia and Australia. The referee blew the whistle, Gyan stepped up, and the ball flicked the crossbar as it flew over. Contrasting scenes on both the field and the touchline – Luis Suarez leapt up in celebration at the entrance to the tunnel; the Uruguayans on the field celebrated, whilst several of the Ghanaians slumped to the floor. The entire stadium, with the exception of two small pockets of Uruguayan support, went eerily silent. The final whistle blew and it was a penalty shoot-out. Uruguay went on to win and book their place in the semi-final.

Amongst the celebrations of the Uruguayans following their victory, the sight of Asamoah Gyan lying face-down on the turf near the centre circle in floods of tears reminds us that there are both winners and losers. His team-mates tried to help him to his feet, to get him off the field and into the privacy of the changing-rooms, but to little avail. The sheer devastation for the poor striker is unimaginable. He had the opportunity to send them to the semi-finals. He failed to take it. Although it is clearly not the case, he must feel like the burden of failure lies with him, and him alone. He showed great courage to step up first in the shoot-out and to score his penalty. But his thoughts, and the thoughts of the millions watching, must have been why he couldn't have done that a mere five minutes earlier.

But the pressure that was on Asamoah Gyan as he stepped up must have been immense. With South Africa and the rest of the African nations eliminated, Ghana were the final African representation in the tournament. The entire of Africa was behind the Black Stars. And the people had serious hopes that Ghana could go all the way - “we must keep the trophy in Africa” was a commonly heard phrase outside Soccer City ahead of the match. As if the hopes and expectations of an entire continent was not enough pressure by itself, an African side had never made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup in the history of the tournament. History was in the making – one kick and Asamoah Gyan and Ghana would go down in history. Thus, the pressure that Gyan was under as he stepped up to take the penalty kick was unlike anything we could imagine. Whether he was consciously thinking of that as he took it we may never know, but it must surely have been in the back of his mind.

Pressure penalties are difficult at the best of times. We have regularly seen the top players suffering under pressure. But to take a penalty like this after having played as a lone striker for 120 minutes just adds to the difficult. Fatigue had clearly been setting in, not only for Gyan, but for the majority of players out on the pitch. Tired bodies lead to tired minds – mistakes and miscalculations begin to set in. The key aspect of penalty-taking is to hit the target. If you hit the target and the keeper saves it, then fair play to him. Even if it is a poor penalty, it is better than missing the target altogether. That is the cardinal sin.

However, there is plenty for Gyan to be proud of. He had an excellent tournament, scoring against Serbia, Australia and the winning extra-time goal against the USA in the second round to get Ghana to the quarter-final stage. His tireless running, combined with pace and power stood out, and he is a player that no defender would relish playing against. However, there is the worry that little of that will be remember when we look back on the tournament in the future. The only memory will be his penalty clipping the bar as it flew over. And that is the tragedy.

The margins between hero-status and the villain are so fine – the contrasting experiences of Asamoah Gyan and Luis Suarez highlight that. In a fraction of a second, their relative status's changed so dramatically. Post-match, the Ghanaians argued that the referee should have awarded them the goal – the ball was going in and it was deliberately stopped illegally. However, this clearly could not have been done – this is not rugby where penalty tries can be awarded. The referee made the correct decision awarding the penalty and brandishing the red card.

The debate of how we regard the actions of Luis Suarez are for another time – was it deliberate cheating or the supreme act of gamesmanship? The answer depends on your views and your culture, but it may be seen as poetic justice that the red card effectively ended his tournament, with Uruguay being eliminated, despite a gallant late comeback, against the Dutch.

Regardless, it is difficult not to feel sorry for Ghana. Whilst not necessarily having the most talented squad, and without their inspirational leader, Michael Essien, they showed immense heart and determination to reach the quarter-finals, and every single one of their players and coaching staff deserve real credit for their achievement. But to be eliminated in such heartbreaking fashion will hurt, and the scars will remain for years to come.

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