The collective celebrations among the international media here when defending champions Italy were sent crashing out of the World Cup by little Slovakia in the group phase, and the genuine air of sadness when it became apparent that South Africa – for all the preparations and unprecedented mass euphoria across the nation – would be the first ever host to bow out at the first hurdle, showed how much scribes and broadcasters alike desperately wanted a love story.
I have been privileged over the last three weeks to be here in South Africa covering this historic World Cup under the tutelage of some of the world’s best football writers and editors, men I can at best describe as “walking opinions of the beautiful game”.
On arrival here, it was not hard to see that Ghana were by a distance the journalists’ favourite underdog in the whole tournament for two reasons; they were on paper the best organised of the six African teams in these finals, and this being the first World Cup to glow beneath an African sun, the continent needed a team capable of taking its interests as far as it could.
Also pleasing to note was that it was not just plain sympathy for the “poor Africans” that Ghana were being held in such high esteem, but many international journalists actually believed the Black Stars had the right talent and temperament to go all the way.
Fine, South Africa were the hosts and most neutrals wanted them to be in the second round at least, but it was generally agreed they would do well to achieve that. The Didier Drogba-spearheaded Ivory Coast have brilliant individual players who turn out for elite European clubs, but as a team unit they are vulnerable and they often choke when stakes are high.
Cameroon ad Nigeria’s meek performances justified their “Africa’s yesterday men” tag and they both had to contend with some unpleasant ridicule, while very little was expected of Algeria.
What makes Ghana’s success more remarkable, as they prepare for their date with destiny in the big quarter-final clash with Uruguay tonight, is that all eyes have been on them from the very first day when they opened their Group D account against Serbia on June 13 in Pretoria.
So as we arrived at the famed Loftus Versveld stadium, a well-known British football writer was not about to have his copy ruined.
“I want Ghana to win, they must win,” he declared.
“Oh, why?” he was asked.
“Coz I want a story!” came the sharp retort.
With South Africa and Nigeria having been held by Mexico and beaten by Argentina in their opening matches respectively, the impressive Asamoah Gyan sunk the Serbs with a penalty five minutes from time to make sure that journos’ story angles were not ruined and prearranged headlines like “Africa’s first World Cup win on home soil” saw the light of day.
Since that day at Loftus, Ghana have continued to justify the hope invested in them. They have given their country and continent good reason to believe. It’s been a true love story between the Black Stars and their supporters across the world.
By reaching this far, they became only the third African team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup after Cameroon and Senegal.
Realistically, perhaps, a semi-final berth – which no African team has achieved before – is the furthest Ghana can go.
But don’t say that to them loudly. They genuinely believe they can in fact become the next world champions come July 11.
Before they can think about that, however, Ghana must break that African quarter-final jinx that saw Senegal disappointingly lose to Turkey in 2002 after doing everything right up to that stage.
Tonight Ghana will be without the suspended duo of Andre “Dede” Ayew, the young wing wizard who has been such a revelation for them, and centre back Jonathan Mensah.
They are however a side which plays to their strength, the team unity philosophy. That is why they have, thus far, not really missed their midfield kingpin Michael Essien and afforded to leave out the other pre-tournament star, Sulley Muntari, on the bench.
They still have other aces in the bag though in Gyan, their top-scorer with three goals, the ever-improving German-born Kevin-Prince Boateng as well as the diminutive, skillful and combative holding midfielder, Anthony Annan.
The quarter-final is Ghana’s most important hurdle in their mission to book a ticket to Soccer City in 10 days time.
The Black Stars believe they can touch the stars.
Enock Muchinjo in Johannesburg