Tuesday, September 26, 2017

African Cinderella Stories – Ghana v. Uruguay

By: Trevor Kew

At the Round of 16 match between South Korea and Uruguay, my travelling companion, Mike Wilson, having just arrived in South Africa bleary-eyed and blinking the day before, decided to purchase a Uruguay jersey.

“You do realize that quite a few people here might not like you too much?” I asked as he returned to his seat clad in the sky-blue strip of Uruguay, referring of course to the South American’s decisive 3-0 win over South Africa ten days before.

“Absolutely,” Mike replied with a grin, enjoying the controversy.  Great, I thought.  We’ve got the whole country against us now.

We watched as Uruguay snatched an exciting 2-1 victory against South Korea, Luis Suarez scoring the crucial winner with a sizzling right-footed strike that curled around the Korean keeper and caromed in off the post.

Now, I have a theory that most people never stop supporting the first team they see score a great goal.  Mike was forever condemned, from that moment, to support Uruguay, despite having to look up where it was on a map the night after the match.  (I, unfortunately, picked Luton Town for my first cracking goal…)

As I’ve mentioned in many of the articles I’ve written during this tournament, South Africans are some of the nicest and most generous people I’ve met in my many travels.  And so while Mike undoubtedly got a hard time wherever he went wearing his Uruguay shirt (which was pretty much everywhere, all the time), it was always meant in good fun.

But it was perhaps, I think, not without a hint of underlying bitterness.  I’m not sure if people watching at home completely realize how disappointed South Africans really are in their team’s performance.  They really expected to make the second round.  I wanted their Cinderella soccer story to come true as much as any other neutral observer, but in reality, it is a miracle that they managed to take any points at all from their group.

And so as the quarterfinal between Ghana and Uruguay approached and everyone began talking about Africa’s last hope in the tournament, I had to think hard about who I wanted to win (a dilemma which drove me to wear a Vancouver Whitecaps shirt to the game, as I knew they wouldn’t win).  But as Mike and I approached the colossal orange cauldron of Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, I found myself a bit put off by the fanatical support of Ghana by bandwagon-jumping, Cinderella-story supporters from all over the globe.

The quarterfinal was the third Ghana match I attended.  It was the fourth Uruguay match I attended.  And as I thought back over Ghana’s group match performances, where they’d qualified on nothing but two penalty kick goals (one of them very dubious, against Australia), I decided that Uruguay was getting a bit of a raw deal.  Unlike Ghana, who had largely survived through to the quarterfinal on luck (and it must be said, spirit as well), Uruguay had been excellent in every game I’d seen, with solid and self-sacrificing defenders and flare and speed in attack.  Diego Forlan, especially, has been one of the players of the tournament, in my opinion.  And really, as the small forgotten soccer nation of South America that twice hoisted the World Cup – once after bettering mighty neighbour Brazil – they were a pretty good Cinderella story themselves.

So as we reached our seats within the great orange bowl, which sounded like one colossal vuvuzela  for most of the hundred-and-twenty minutes, I found myself pulling for Uruguay (Now we had not just this country, or Ghana, but most of the world against us.)  What followed was one of the most exciting attacking matches of the World Cup so far.  Numerous chances, tough tackles, a free-kick goal, goalkeeper errors, extra time, a red card, a penalty miss, penalties—edge of the seat stuff.

I’m not saying Ghana didn’t deserve the win.  It was a true battle where either team could have come out on top, an evenly-matched back-and-forth see-saw contest.  I’m just saying that Uruguay still deserve a lot of credit for their victory, despite that much-talked about handball in the last minute of extra time (and admit it, you’d have done it too…), which now looks like one of the most brilliant (i.e. lucky) split-second decisions of the World Cup.   And they, like Ghana, had many chances to win the game.

In the World Cup, soccer Cinderella stories, those of small unexpected nations succeeding, tend to hit midnight at the quarterfinal, or at the latest the semifinal stage.  Ghana has already turned into a pumpkin.  Uruguay may be next.

Either way, this World Cup has been far more entertaining with its Cinderella stories than it would have been without them.

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