As Andre Ayew stood over the penalty spot, history was there to be rewritten. It was the moment Ghana dreamed of: the chance, perhaps not to heal the scars of Johannesburg, but to move on and leave them behind. The opportunity to knock Uruguay out of the World Cup was one that was raised when the group stage draw was made months, for it to arrive when their own progress was on the line added a sense of ambition to their lust for revenge.
On paper, a penalty, from 12 yards, at 0-0, was as clear an opportunity as you could imagine.
But this was not just any penalty, and this was not just any World Cup fixture. Ghana had not been denied a goal this time, unlike when Luis Suarez punched the ball off the line 12 years ago. Mohammed Kudus was instead taken down by the Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet when he was running out of the pitch, close to the byline. The end result was the same. A Ghanaian stood with the ball, facing a Uruguay goalkeeper.
Ayew was an unused substitute that night in Johannesburg, watching on as Asamoah Gyan clipped the crossbar and the chance to reach a historic World Cup semi-final slipped from their grasp. Suarez would have been yards away. Ayew may even have heard his yelps as he celebrated in glee after his red card went unpunished from 12 yards. The Uruguay striker had been cast as “the devil himself” before this Group H decider – he has haunted Ghana ever since, as much as Gyan’s miss.
On paper, Ayew and Ghana were faced with a penalty. In reality, it was so much more.
And everyone knew it. Ayew did, Ghana did, and Uruguay did. La Celeste, the masters of the dark arts, turned to their tricks. They surrounded the penalty spot. Ghana’s players formed a ring around Ayew, as if to protect him from their negative energy.
He was left, alone, 12 yards out and with Rochet to beat.
The high camera angle at the Al Janoub Stadium even mirrored that at Soccer City. The shot and the framing that has lived in the heads of Ghanaians was here, in front of their eyes.
How many times must Ayew have seen Gyan’s penalty in the time since? Perhaps enough to understand that Gyan’s mistake was that he was too charged by the moment, his run-up too quick and shot powered by too much emotion. Maybe, then, there was sense in a slower, more considered approach.
But perhaps what was more crucial about Gyan’s miss was knowing how deep a mark it left, that it lived not just in the head of the taker but in the consciousness of a country. Ghana understood that when they were reunited with La Diablo himself.
Ayew’s miss will not leave behind the same trail of hurt. It was soft, saved comfortably by Rochet, but it will not haunt Ghana in the same way, simply because of how early it came, and perhaps by the fact that Uruguay themselves were knocked out, following South Korea’s late winner.
It did not give Ghana another chance and, on paper, they could not have asked for a better one against Uruguay. But then reality came, and history weighed too heavily on the moment for them to stand.