JOHANNESBURG—In a Soweto township that has seen more than its share of history, Uruguay wrote itself a new and most improbable chapter Friday night – and denied the Black Stars of Ghana and their continental army of supporters an epic novel of their own.
Sebastian Abreu’s casual chip from the penalty spot clinched a 4-2 victory via a shootout, after the South American side led by mercurial Diego Forlan and the young, pacey Black Stars had played 90 minutes and a 30-minute extra period even at 1-1 on the scoreboard.
Abreu’s goal clinched a semifinal berth against the Netherlands for Uruguay, their deepest advance at a World Cup since 1970, after their ‘keeper Fernando Muslera had easily stopped the attempts of Ghana captain John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah earlier in the shootout.
Sulley Muntari’s 39-metre blast just before the first half’s added time expired sent the Soccer City Stadium crowd into raptures, but the ever-dangerous Forlan answered back with a free kick goal 10 minutes after the restart to set up a furious finish that went extra time and finally, completely manic.
As the last minute of the added time in overtime was due to expire with the Black Stars pouring it on, Uruguay’s beleaguered defence cleared two point-blank Ghana chances from Stephen Appiah’s foot and Adiyah’s head off the goal-line, the latter by backtracking forward Luis Suarez’s hand with the infamous Jabulani ball seemingly halfway over the goal line. Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca pointed to the spot immediately and flashed Suarez the automatic red card for the handball, meaning he’ll miss the semifinal.
Asamoah Gyan went to the penalty spot, from where he’d converted two penalty kicks earlier in the tournament – and overcooked one off the top of the crossbar and into the night. Cue pandemonium, and the second penalty shootout of a tournament that finally caught fire with the Dutch’s upset of Brazil earlier in the day in Port Elizabeth, and then this tense classic.
With Nelson Mandela cheering them on along with an entire continent, Ghana was attempting to become the first African squad to reach the World Cup semifinals. The team was promised a $50,000 bonus for a win, and special Christian prayer sessions were held at home in the West African nation of 24.3 million.
Instead, they equalled Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal eight years ago as quarterfinalists, albeit under the most bizarre and heartbreaking circumstances in a match that swung wildly. The penalty miss at the death by Gyan was particularly cruel, the dynamic striker having shot the Black Stars into the quarters with an extra-time winner against the U.S. on Saturday. Suarez, part of a lethal combination with Forlan, literally slapped a winning goal away from Ghana, which will etch his name Henry-like in the eyes of many of their supporters.
“The whole of Africa supported us – we didn’t deserve to lose this way,” said Ghana’s Serbian head coach Milovan Rajevac. “It’s difficult but we’re proud of what we achieved. This is sport and justice. Today Uruguay were the lucky ones.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez was exultant. “These boys deserve everything,” said Tabarez. “Today we didn’t play well … (But) it seems there’s something forcing us on. It must be the strength and unity of these boys.”