Just like four years previous, the central, lasting motif from South Africa 2010 was not a goal or a team performance but an individual trangression of the highest order. Luiz Suarez’s deliberate handball on the line to prevent a certain winning goal from Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah has come to mean many things – a landmark event in Suarez’s nefarious bildungsroman, an illustration of the essential insufficiency that haunts every rulebook, a textbook example of footballing jouissance – but at the time its meaning was quite clear and univocal. Had Australia not shipped four against Germany three weeks prior, had the USA been able to stifle Asamoah Gyan in Rustenburg, and had all else been the same, the Suarez handball might have taken on a wholly different character. Memorable, yes, but hardly the moment of the tournament. Suarez’s transgression took on Zidane-like intensity because of the possibility it all but foreclosed: namely, an African side reaching the last four of the World Cup for the first time in the competition’s history.
As the only team from the home continent to reach the group stages of the first World Cup held in Africa, the 2010 Ghana squad came to be written – at least in the British media narrative – into a position as placeholders extraordinaire. They represented the aspiration, presumably as much a construct of first-world postcolonial guilt as anything else, to belatedly make good on Pele’s assertion that an African side would become world champions by the year 2000. Whatever it is that drives this widespread desire, a certain depoliticised Pan-Africanism emerged as a reflex: recall Puma’s decision to produce the same third kit for all four of the African sides they represented at the tournament; a blue shirt with brown shorts and socks designed to resemble a dirt playing field set against a bright sky. There was speculation that Ghana would wear this ensemble if they made it through to the semi-finals. In a certain corner of the Western cultural imaginary, Africa is a country, and in 2010 Ghana were the country that Africa is.
Due to a decision by CAF to tweak the schedules of their flagship tournament, two editions of the Africa Cup of Nations have taken place since that Suarez handball. In this context, clearly, the idea of one team representing the aspirations of African football is absurd. In each case, Ghana have finished in fourth, as they presumably would have done had Adiyiah’s header (or, it should be mentioned, Asamoah Gyan’s fluffed penalty), found the back of the net. In each case, however, the good will with which the Black Stars became entangled in 2010 has been difficult to muster. Asamoah Gyan, whose match-winning volley against the USA had caused an on-message Peter Drury to cry out “Sing Sing Africa!”, briefly appeared at Sunderland in a fruitful strike partnership with Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck, but then left to pursue even more money in Qatar. His subsequent performances for Ghana inevitably suffered and he retired from international football in 2012, only to be restored as captain a few months later. Kevin-Prince Boateng, another star of the 2010 squad, seemed to lose interest in the Black Stars after his World Cup campaign, blaming lack of physical stamina as he too retired from international football in 2011. In 2012 in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and then in 2013 in South Africa, Ghana often came across as creatively-deficient bullyboys as they took on teams with better claims on underdog status. In the first of these tournaments they were beaten by a low-seeded Zambia side on their way to delivering the most remarkable tribute in the history of international football. The following year they were unquestionably the villains of their semi-final tie against outsiders Burkina Faso, who progressed on penalties despite some frankly dubious refereeing decisions in Ghana’s favour: key attacking threat Jonathan Pitroipa was, for example, sent off for being tripped in the Ghanaian penalty area.
With teams like Zambia and Burkina Faso failing to make it past the same five African nations that qualified in 2010, it appears that despite a host of new medallists in continental competition little has changed in African football’s relationship with the world stage. As key protagonists of the story that 2010 told about African football, however, Ghana have in the intervening years – whether the players themselves are aware of this or not – undergone an irretrievable narrative shift. This is mirrored by a wholesale change in personnel: this year’s squad, although it contains such long-standing recruits as Boateng, Gyan, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and a returning Michael Essien, will be mostly unfamiliar to viewers who last tuned in when Ghana were the Great African Hope. The most striking continuity comes in the form of the teams the Black Stars are set to face: both Germany and the USA provided stumbling blocks to that eventual showdown with Uruguay at Soccer City. If Ghana are to make it through a tough group, victory in that rematch against Jurgen Klinsmann’s side will be a basic requirement; it remains to be seen where the match commentator’s exclamations will place Ghana should Gyan once again bag the spectacular winning goal.
Posted by Luke Healey