If the World Cup owes Ghana something for past events, then it may have to be another four years before it finally settles the debt.
In 2010, Ghana seemed to be mere seconds from becoming the first African side ever to reach the semi-finals of the tournament, as Dominic Adiyiah’s 120th-minute header looped past the stranded Uruguay goalkeeper and floated inexorably towards goal.
But Luis Suarez was there on the line to punch the shot away with his fists, conceding a penalty (and earning him a red card) but handing Uruguay a vital stay of execution.
It would turn out to be much more than that: Asamoah Gyan would crash the spot-kick against the crossbar, and Uruguay would duly go on to win the tie on a penalty shootout.
"The Hand of God now belongs to me,” Suarez would famously crow afterwards. “Mine is the real Hand Of God. I made the best save of the tournament.”
“I wish the match could happen again because it really hurts me every time when I’m alone,” Gyan told John McAuley of The National recently. “It’s something that I can never forget.
“I watch it over and over and over again and hope one day I can turn things around.”
Gyan was one of four players in the starting line-up that night who also started on Saturday, as Ghana faced Germany, this time with their 2014 World Cup participation on the line.
After losing to United States in their Group G opener, Ghana simply could not afford a second defeat.
In that regard, it looked bleak for the Black Stars when Mario Goetze, the youngest player in the Germany starting line-up, bundled his side into a second-half lead, as their pressure finally told. But Ghana responded brightly and almost immediately, as Andre Ayew powered home an equaliser before Gyan beat Manuel Neuer with an unerring drive to give his side an unlikely lead with almost 30 minutes still to play.
Then came the pivotal moment of the match. Substitute Jordan Ayew broke free down the left, with Gyan clean through on goal if he slipped him a simple pass into the middle. But the youngster, perhaps certain this was going to be his moment of glory, eschewed the selfless pass to go for goal himself, eventually producing a timid effort that Neuer easily held.
Gyan was furious, and with good reason—it felt like the best chance to kill off the match had been wasted. Moments later, Germany threw on Miroslav Klose, and with his first touch, the veteran scored his 15th World Cup goal (joining Brazil’s Ronaldo atop the all-time list) to restore parity at 2-2.
Both sides pushed forward in the closing minutes, but a fifth and final goal was not forthcoming.
The result was a credit to Ghana, but it was arguably more valuable to Germany, who know they will now progress to the knockout stages as long as they do not lose to the United States in their final game.
“It was a great game and I would like to congratulate the team—we believed in ourselves against tough side,” Gyan said afterwards, per BBC Sport. “We had to respect Germany, but we were close.”
This was all true, but the undercurrent of disappointment was obvious. Ghana could have beaten Germany in the heat of Fortaleza, and perhaps should have beaten the U.S. in their opener. But instead of six points they have just one, and instead of already being on the verge of the last 16, they need other results to go their way to even stand a chance.
Going toe-to-toe with Germany—in perhaps the most exciting second half of football of the tournament so far (a bar that seems to be getting raised and re-raised)—both highlighted Ghana’s quality and underlined their continuing naivety.
“We had a lot of chances but we didn’t take advantage of them,” coach Kwesi Appiah acknowledged after the game. “It’s unfortunate that it ended this way. It was a very good game.”
This has always been the rap against African teams—that they have plenty of natural talent and athleticism, but too often falter when the game becomes a matter of tactical discipline or individual concentration.
Germany lost their structure in the second half and ended up playing Ghana at their own game, yet Appiah’s men could not quite see the contest out after initially taking advantage.
"In the second half, suddenly you saw a terrific pace by both teams,” Low told reporters. ”It was an open exchange of punches. Ghana had possibilities, we had possibilities.”
That was perhaps also the case in the game against the United States, an opponent they had beaten at each of the last two World Cups. Yet they left themselves open to accusations of poor concentration as they went behind after barely 30 seconds to Clint Dempsey’s driving run and shot, and struggled to break down a brilliantly organised defence for the next 85.
When they did, thanks to Andre Ayew’s sliced finish, they then lost concentration at a corner and saw John Brooks head home a U.S. winner against the run of play. It was a painful lesson.
Against Germany, there was one change to the starting lineup from that game—Kevin-Prince Boateng in for Jordan Ayew—but it was not until the younger Ayew came on for Boateng in the second half that Appiah’s side finally sparked into life.
Suddenly their potential as a unit appeared to be realised. The attacking trio of the two Ayews and Christian Atsu continually beat their vaunted defensive opponents, with Gyan—whose goal meant he joined Roger Milla as the all-time leading African scorer at World Cups—always looking to pounce on a "half-chance" chance.
In midfield, Sulley Muntari and Mohammed Rabiu covered the yards manfully to try to limit Germany’s midfield carousel, while the defensive partnership of Jonathan Mensah and John Boye belied their lightweight appearance as they coped well with the occasionally dizzying movement of Goetze, Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil.
“We saw the real Ghana today,” Gyan said afterwards. “We were tactically perfect, we had to work hard because Germany are so good in possession.”
Despite that, however, they still have a mountain to climb. They could go out of the tournament regardless of their final game against Portugal should the USA beat Portugal on Sunday but then succumb to Germany in their final group encounter.
Group G was never going to be easy for them to get out of, but their current position could easily have been much more promising.
“Portugal are a very good team,” Appiah noted. “But so are USA—we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.”
Then again, four years on from that Suarez moment, perhaps a helping hand from Lady Luck might yet send them into battle against Portugal knowing a win could send them through to the last 16 by the slimmest of margins.
It would give them a chance to make amends, to put into practice the lessons they have already learned at this World Cup.
“Now we have to go all out in our last game,” Gyan told reporters. “We have to focus and believe we can beat Portugal.”