Saturday, July 3, 2010

The drama of Ghana v Uruguay

Yesterday was supposed to be an anti-climax, or so I thought. Last night’s quarter final between Uruguay and Ghana was perhaps the least attractive fixture in the last eight. Worse still, this could have been an England match but the dismal showing of Rooney et al had robbed me of the dream of seeing the Three Lions in action at the business end of the World Cup. I was not happy. But I was so, so wrong.

After watching the Netherlands – Brazil game in a bar (many South Africans have adopted other teams since Bafana fell at the first hurdle), we hurtled down to Park Station to catch the Metrorail to Soccer City, a service free for ticket holders. Jo’burg City Council have been encouraging fans to use public transport to ease match day traffic congestion so we obliged. The problem was that there was insufficient parking for the demand, forcing many to park outside on the streets. This prospect would usually be met with apprehension and in some cases outright refusal but the World Cup has created this temporary cocoon of safety over Johannesburg. Watching throngs of people of all race, class and gender walk the streets of Johannesburg at night just does not happen normally but this time people were happy enough to leave their cars on the pavements while the car guards made a tidy profit. Crammed onto the train, the unusual kept coming. Admittedly a big generalisation, it was bizarre to see the middle classes use the form of transport usually used by the black working class to commute to work. As with last year’s Confederations Cup when I regularly heard comments about how they’d never been in a minibus taxi before, many had clearly never used the train system before. At one level, the World Cup is bringing groups of people together in unusual situations but such is the temporary nature of such an event. The Metrorail network does not serve the need of the middle class northern suburbs and so I cannot see these people continuing to use public transport after the tournament.

Crowds pouring out of the train station
I was a very confused man last night. As an Englishman, I wore my New Zealand football shirt and had my face painted with the Ghanaian flag!

Am I English, Kiwi or Ghanaian?

Reaching Soccer City, the crowds slowly wandered towards the gate. The almost deafening blasts from the vuvuzelas combined with the songs of fans created an exhilarating backdrop to the spectacular calabash stadium.

Approaching Soccer City
Sat down in our seats just before the national anthems (this time I didn’t miss the first twenty minutes of a Ghana game). What was glaringly obvious was that virtually all the fans inside were supporting Ghana. Out of the 84,000 people there, there could not have been more than 2,000 Uruguay fans. As Ben and I discussed throughout the game, we’ve never witnessed such a partisan crowd for a non-host game. Even Bafana v Mexico in the opening game had a sizable number of Mexican supporters. Ghana maybe thousands of miles away but last night was a home game for them. One flag opposite us claimed that "we Kenyans support Ghana". With few supporters coming from either country, the South African spectators got fully behind the African team. The vuvuzelas were back in full force, after a slight lull in previous knockout games. I put this down to the fact that few South Africans would know the words to Ghanaian or Uruguayan songs – the vuvuzela is the lowest common denominator.

The teams line up

The game itself didn’t start too brightly, especially for the Ghanaians. However, they sparked into life towards the end of the half and Sulley Muntari’s cracker in injury time sent the crowd into ecstasy. This worked to our advantage as people were still celebrating into the break meaning the beer and food queues were considerably shorter. This was great news as we were so “looking forward” to yet more bland, rubber sausages®, branded sugary drinks© and mediocre beer™.

Is this food?

The crowd were in jubilant mood in the second half until Diego Forlan’s free kick found the back of the net in the 55th minute. The crowd were stunned. Chances came and went at both ends as the game went into extra time. Whenever Ghana threatened the Uruguayans goal, the vuvuzelas surged up, willing the team on to become Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist.

And then it all went crazy.

At the death in extra time, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez produced a cynical handball on the line to prevent Dominic Adiyiah’s header from crossing the line. The crowd jumped to their feet, vuvuzelas blasting and flags waving as Suarez was sent off and the penalty awarded. The crowd were already in party mode believing that this was Ghana’s moment but they could not believe their eyes as Asamoah Gyan’s spot kick hit the crossbar. Sharp intakes of breath, heads in hands, slumping back down into the seats; the fairytale ending was shattered. The penalty shootout that followed could have caused any number of heart attacks. All credit to Gyan for stepping up to take the first penalty for Ghana and banishing the failure of a couple of minutes previously as he slotted home his spot-kick. The despair of John Mensah’s saved penalty was quickly supplanted by the euphoria of keeper Richard Kingson saving the next Uruguayan penalty, but this was short lived. Adiyiah missed his and Sebastian Abreu calmly converted to send the South Americans into the last four.

Ghanaian striker Kevin Prince Boateng ran around the pitch in an attempt to get the crowd to cheer for Ghana one last time but the stadium emptied remarkably quickly.

Soccer City emptied in a matter of minutes

However, our night had not finished yet. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up in the middle of the celebrations of the Uruguay fans. Initially annoyed that they had knocked Ghana out, I found that I couldn’t begrudge Uruguay their victory, such was the passion and enthusiasm of the fans. I wasn’t so impressed with the way the South African Police Service handled crowd control. Dressed in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-esque body armour and wanting us to leave the stadium, they pushed us into the crowd with their batons, forcing us out. I thought that the best way to avoid a crush would be not to push people in the crowd, or maybe I’m being naive? The police did partially redeem themselves when they pulled out a drunken fan from our train carriage, who seemed to determined to start a fight.

Uruguay fans celebrate as the police behind us push us into the crowd

Having jumped on the last train to Johannesburg, it took a very long time as it slowly made its way back to the city but this didn’t spoil one of the best footballing experiences that I’ve ever had.

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