Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today ... a look at Ghana's infinitely painful loss.
Seriously fun game, huh? All of the anticipation and hype — including the longest stretch of game-less days since the World Cup began — made it seem possible that the day's best quarterfinal could end up disappointing us, but in the end it was one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament. Ghana and Uruguay put on a show for the ages. Wait, were you thinking of another game?
It's hard to imagine the emotional swing these two teams just went through. For the first 90 minutes, they traded wild shifts in momentum, with each side dominating for periods. Ghana started the scoring as Ghana is wont to do — with a player stealing a ball in the deep midfield, way out near the center circle, then taking a few dribbles and firing a shot from so far out that no one thinks it possible that this could even come close to being dangerous. The player thus has a half-hour to prepare himself and unleash a rocket. This is of course a very familiar scenario to us American fans, only this time it was goalkeeper Fernando Musiera (who appears to be 14) playing the part of Tim Howard — the dazed spectator watching a ball curl safely into the corner. And the shooter was not Kevin-Prince Boateng***, who sort of frightens me, but Sulley Muntari.
Uruguay evened the game on a beautiful free kick by Young Michael Bolton, who was absolutely everywhere in this game and is a definite favorite for World Cup MVP, as well as the Golden Boot. Goldilocks delivered one beautiful ball after another, including free kicks from so far out not even a Ghana player would consider shooting from there. On this particular score, the Jabulani first swerved one way, baiting the otherwise excellent keeper Richard Kingson into taking a step to his right, then changed its mind mid-air, swerving away and into the upper left corner. (Said announcer Ian Darke: "The ball was veering about as if under remote control.")
Both keepers made ass-saving plays late in the game and then for the second-straight match, Ghana tacked on an extra 30 minutes, just for fun. You'd think that a team that played back to back 120 minute games might be the one to tire late, but it was Ghana at the end furiously attacking the Uruguayan goal as the human glow stick Musiera and his band of fearless defenders — lacking their captain and world-class sweeper Diego Lugano, out with an injury — repulsed a series of excellent chances. Then the end happened.
I hope fans back home in Montevideo feel at least a little guilty about this win because you people were very, very lucky. Part of me hates Luis Suarez for blocking Ghana's last-second goal with his arm, but I imagine it was probably reflex as much as anything. And now this bit of cheating might be the play of the tournament, because we all know what happened next. Ghana's best player, Asamoah Gyan, the man who broke America's heart and had already nailed two penalty kicks, bonked the ensuing PK off the crossbar. This shot proved to be the last play of the game and would have won the game for Ghana, proving a dramatic ending for the ages. Instead, we got a whole different ending for the ages; the game went to a shootout and Uruguay won. That's a serious mind-fuck if you're a fan of Ghana.
Hell, it's even a serious mind-fuck for me. I found myself pulling unusually hard for the Africans, despite the fact that they tore my heart out and danced on it in cleats not even a week ago. I don't hate Uruguay (I actually like the way they play), but the Ghanaians were fun to watch and had cool uniforms.***** I still don't hate Uruguay but I do hate the way they won this.
I also think they're screwed in the semis. They have no Suarez — he's done for the semifinals, and maybe for the rest of the tournament — might also be without Lugano, and now they've fucked with karma. It will take one hell of an encore by Young Michael Bolton if Uruguay is going to have a prayer.
*** If they ever make a film version of The Wire, Boateng would make a most excellent, and far more badass, Avon Barksdale.
***** They were also the youngest team in the tournament, so watch out for the Black Stars in 2014.
And now for the undercard. Kidding! Can I just start by saying I told you so. There, I said it. I told you, I told you, I told you that Holland would beat Brazil. I also thought it was very possible they would not; I actually thought this well into the second half, when Julio Cesar made his only blunder of the tournament, with an assist by Felipe Melo's head. Melo had himself a pretty shitty day, starting with the own-goal (which was about as weak as own-goals get, frankly) and finishing with a red card, getting tossed in the 73rd minute for stomping on Arjen Robben's leg and forcing his team to play with ten men while already down a goal.
Before anyone considers egging the poor guy's house, it should be noted that it was Melo's brilliant pass that found a streaking Robinho and led to the game's first goal. (The other assist on that goal should go to Holland's defense, which did a great impression of Team USA in that moment.) For awhile after that catastrophe, Brazil seemed to be toying with the Dutch, controlling play while Robben and Van Persie dicked around with the ball, squandering Holland's few chances. At one point, Robben actually tried the soccer version of the fumblerooskie. He barely tapped a corner then pretended that he'd decided to have someone else take the kick. It seems like the plan was for Sneijder to then run over and, I guess, kick it. But Dani Alves, and everyone else watching at home, noticed that Robben had dinked the ball and so he just ran over and took it. Sneijder fouled him in frustration and thus ended one of the stupidest "trick" plays I've ever seen in a professional sporting event.
Oh, but momentum is a fickle bitch. Martin Tyler had barely proclaimed that a Dutch goal could swing the game when Melo and Cesar gifted Holland a score and that was that. In the 67th minute, Robben shot a low corner that Dirk Kuyt flicked to Sneijder who headed it into the net. It was 2–1 Holland and the Brazilian meltdown was underway.
If I were to rank all 32 teams in order of likelihood to completely lose their minds, Brazil would have finished last. Brazilians are just about the least high-strung people on the planet; they seem incapable of going a day without dancing in public. But from the minute the Dutch scored to go ahead, the Brazilians went mental. They fouled often, and hard, whined loudly and completely forgot that for the better part of the first half they were easily the better team. (Major assist to Robben and the Dutch here for flopping, and arguing and otherwise baiting the shit out of their opponents.)
Afterward, former Dutch star and ESPN studio analyst Ruud Guillit was positively beaming. "Now they have a feeling that they can be World Champions," he said.
One more time: I told you so.****
**** I actually think Argentina might win this thing.