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Spot difference

July 3, 2010

It was a beautiful penalty, slotted high to Muslera’s left. There was no Stuart Pearce-style fist-pumping from Gyan – he’d merely clawed a situation of his own making to one of ambiguity – but for a moment you allowed yourself to wonder whether the weight of a yet-to-be-written history could still tip the scales against Uruguayan artfulness. Just for a minute, you suspended the memory of Ghanaian players slumped on the floor, heads encased in hands, with 120 minutes played and the tie still, in scoreline at least, firmly level.

Gyan’s bravery in stepping up for that first penalty, his second, seemed almost beyond words at the time – but paths to redemption are rarely that linear. In reality it was only an ephemeral watering-down of his earlier torment, because even the dreamiest romantic in Soccer City knew, deep down, what would happen within the next ten minutes – what, it seemed, now had to happen. For nearly three hours, all but a few Uruguay-favouring hundred of the 84,000 present had been in full, tumultuous voice – either through the medium of vuvuzela or through by far the most widespread chanting I’ve heard at this World Cup. The atmosphere had been magical, a one-off, a truly collaborative Black Star-motivated effort from people based all over the world. The silence when Abreu drifted his ‘Panenka’ past Richard Kingson was abrupt and operatic – barely lifting above the occasional mournful toot as Gyan then doubled up in tears, unable to leave the pitch, a thousand removes from consolation. He lay, hiding his face, right in front of our seats; gazes to left, right and centre focussed entirely upon his awful misery, faces intent in sympathy and disbelief. His second spot-kick had been a masterpiece – but after what had gone before, there could never be an easy way out.

Twelve hours on and with the benefit of as decent a night’s sleep as a 1.30am return from the football permits, it’s still nigh-on impossible to commit thoughts to writing in cohesive fashion. The last time I returned from a match and wanted to say so much was Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona in March – but that was pretty easy, it defied little logic, the game’s pattern and drama being explicable in plain terms regardless of its theatre. How can you rationalise a match such as last night’s, its distillation of emotion and the elements of pure chance (I don’t want to get into moral debates about Suarez’s handball, by the way) that swung its outcome?

What’s for sure is that, after Uruguay’s front players had pressed with characteristic excellence against a timid Ghana side for 25 minutes, we ultimately were given the match we had hoped for and half-expected. The Black Stars’ forward drive and unintricate-yet-attractive style was equalled by the Uruguayans’ ability, in territorial and chance-creating terms at least, to capitalise upon their many errors. By the end of extra time, all had descended into logic-defying chaos. The final five minutes, of intense Ghanaian pressure, had no chance of ending quietly.

I don’t dislike this Uruguayan side – they’ve grown on me since that dreadful opener against France. Ghana flag, hat and temporary allegiance to one side, I found myself willing Diego Forlan on every time he received the ball – if the triumph was to be his and his alone, then so be it. I wrote a mini-eulogy to Forlan a few weeks back so won’t trouble you with another, but I wonder if there’s been a better all-round attacking player at this tournament. Can anybody else both lead the line and mould the play from deep with such mastery, technique and intensity? He gets better and better with age – the only shame being that he is not three or four years younger. He was by far the outstanding, inspirational figure in last night’s skirmish – and I can’t wait to see how he responds to Suarez’s absence against a sketchy Dutch defence. Tabarez has a selection difficulty there – Abreu might have had the final say last night and is an obvious replacement, but Uruguay’s attacks became far less coherent when he replaced Cavani.

I could keep going and going, but we’re heading out soon. There was another match yesterday, wasn’t there? Not the one previewed with merciful brevity on these pages, mind. Little rhyme or reason to that one, either – two astonishing (in recent context) defensive lapses from Brazil gave a fairly unprepossessing Dutch performance a reward few could have anticipated and proved many of us very wrong. It did, though, give us an insight into how Brazil would react to going behind in a game (terribly, and petulantly), and confirmed that – red card or not – there wasn’t really a plan B. Dunga’s pragmatism, which had succeeded with a kind of beauty earlier on, ate itself. Where were the options from the bench? Who could have come on to add variation – even with eleven men? To my mind, Dunga came closer than meets the eye to achieving something very impressive – but perhaps the soul of Brazilian football had to intervene in a quiet way. Weight of history again, anyone?

Germany v Argentina? See yesterday. This evening we have Spain v Paraguay on our hands, at the brooding anachronism that is Ellis Park. It seems a little bit of a sick joke that Paraguay are the only team we’ll have seen twice thus far, but let’s make the best of it – we may as well hope that Spain score early on. I’ve a feeling it won’t be especially pretty if they don’t.

Okay – the African blessing for Julia and Vuli’s place comes next, then we head to the Fan Park for the 4pm game. The winner of that one has a real, real chance now.

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