To say that the USA and Ghana are unlikely rivals would be an understatement. One nation is a global superpower at the center of almost every international engagement, and the other is a sovereign West African nation that has made great strides in their region over the years – not that many outside of that region take notice.
Writing the story of the rivalry between these two teams is not hard. Until 2006, these two nations had never played at the senior international level, and between World Cups they are as far away as top-level international soccer teams can be.
Now, in 2014, in advance of their opening Group G matchup in Natal, this rivalry doesn’t bear any great animosity. Instead, there is a deep weariness, plenty of respect, and a hope inside the heart of each nation that they can beat the other.
The Ghana – USA rivalry comes in three succinct parts that had reverberating effects around the football landscape. There was 2006 in Germany, 2010 in South Africa, and this summer, 2014 in Brazil. That’s it – but if you think that this matchup is in any way insignificant, think again.
It seemed simple enough: beat Ghana, bank on a battered Czech Republic not beating eventual champion Italy, and the United States – though humbled and bloody – would scrape into the knockout round.
For a team that had been shattered 3-0 by the Czechs in their first game and managed to hang on with nine men to draw against the Italians, playing Ghana was a lifeline.
In 2002, the Americans went to the quarterfinals in South Korea and but for some bad luck and a bounce or two, could have gone farther.
Going into Germany, Bruce Arena’s team was ranked as high as fourth in world. But things went wrong immediately. First off, the US were handed a killer draw. The Czechs were at their best – one of the top five teams in the world – while Italy was reeling from a match-fixing scandal but strong, and Arena knew that Ghana’s athleticism and power would give the US trouble.
“We will have our hands full,” Arena said after the draw.
He thought. “We’re done.”
There were other problems. Landon Donovan was coming off a second disastrous spell in Germany and in a bad place mentally, and the spine of the team – Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, and Kasey Keller – were old, older, and oldest.
Yes, the team was alive – but barely. They knew the end of an era was coming.
Ghana, meanwhile, were appearing in their first World Cup, and nothing great was expected. In a group with the USA and two European powers, they were expected to be the three points all the big sides could guarantee.
Italy brushed by Ghana 2-0 in the opening game, but then the Ghanians sprung a surprise, beating the Czech Republic in Cologne.
Now, the winner of the USA-Ghana game would go through to the Round of 16.
The Americans were favorites. But one look at the team-sheets would have told you that the U.S. was in trouble.
Arena had the elder statesman Claudio Reyna in midfield to combat the bulldog Ghanaian duo of Stephan Appiah and Michael Essien. The U.S. was without Pope in the center of defense, and so in stepped Jimmy Conrad for his first World Cup game – he had been little more than a fringe player just weeks before.
And it was an early nightmare for the U.S. when Reyna was stripped of the ball and hurt in midfield 22 minutes in, and Ghana scored the opener. Reyna had to be stretchered off, and he lasted just 18 minutes longer. His international career was over.
But the Americans fought. They always do. And as the game went on, the US started to take over. On the stroke of halftime, DeMarcus Beasley slung a perfect cross into a charging Clint Dempsey, which the Texas smashed in on the volley. Suddenly, the USA were one goal from the knockout round.
But two minutes later, Ghana had the most dubious of dubious penalties. With the smallest nudge from Oguchi Oneywu, Ghana forward Razak Pimpong dropped to the ground, and the referee pointed to the spot.
Arena fumed, and not for the first time during the tournament.
In the incredible game against Italy, Daniele De Rossi had been sent off early from a vicious elbow to the face of Brian McBride that resulted in one of the bloodiest scenes on the field in World Cup history. De Rossi missed almost the entire tournament through suspension.
But on the stroke of halftime in that game, Pablo Mastroeni was given a straight red. Arena saw it as a makeup call. It was. “He (the referee) was looking for an excuse,” Mastroeni said. “Anywhere else in the world, it’s just a yellow.”
Eddie Pope was sent off two minutes after the restart. It was clear to Arena: the U.S. wasn’t getting equal treatment from referees, in his eyes. “It’s natural, the powers in the game probably get a bit more respect on the officiating,” Arena said after the game. “It’s not unusual in any sport.”
Meanwhile in the final group match, Appiah scored Ghana’s penalty. Though the Americans threatened in the second half, they didn’t find an equalizer, let alone the two goals they needed. Ghana won 2-1, and went through.
It was the Ghanaians introduction to the world stage. They were the last African team remaining in the tournament.
After the game, Sunil Gulati was given ample opportunity to declare his support for Arena. He didn’t.
Arena left when his contract ran out after the tournament, and the American’s pursuit of Jurgen Klinsmann started. They never landed him, and Bob Bradley was appointed instead. Only four of the fourteen American players who took the field against Ghana would do so four years later in Rustenburg.
The first thing to understand about Ghana’s meeting with the USA in the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the incredible emotion involved.
Ghana were the only African team remaining at Africa’s World Cup – the first World Cup held on the continent – and had the backing of the entire continent, plus neutrals from all over the world. It was up to them to fly the flag for their country, but also in a broader sense, for their entire continent and beyond.
The United States were coming off the most dramatic moment in their history – Landon Donovan’s stoppage time winner against Algeria to send the USA from the brink of oblivion to the knockout round.
In the US, support was unprecedented. A rare and treasured sense of national pride had been conjured, and soccer finally had the center stage. Despite facing incredible odds and adversity, the USA went through. Destiny was one word to use. Donovan’s goal was the latest normal time goal in the 80-year history of the World Cup.
It’s fair to say that both teams felt support and pressure they had never experienced before.
And the road ahead was tantalizing: The winner would play the victor in the matchup between South Korea and Uruguay, and there was a chance that a victory could mean a trip to the semifinal.
The setting was Royal Bafokeng Stadium. The Americans were used to it: they beat Egypt 3-0 in the Confederations Cup in 2009 there, and drew England 1-1 there in the first game of the group stage. It was the smallest venue at the South African World Cup, and had a uniquely small-time feel.
But there was nothing small about the occasion. Bill Clinton was there. Morgan Freeman was there. Mick Jagger and Kobe Bryant, too.
The USA were slight favorites. They had drawn a lackluster England 1-1 with a solid performance, then had gone 2-0 down against Slovenia before roaring back to make it 2-2 when a perfectly good winner by Maurice Edu was ludicrously ruled out. By the time a good Clint Dempsey goal against Algeria was scrubbed out for offsides, the Americans shouldn’t have needed Donovan’s heroics. But they got them.
Ghana were no vintage side. They were young and talented, but not at all seasoned. In fact, their only two goals in the group stage came on penalties, and both were scored with the other team a man down. The Ghanaians went through on goal difference over Australia, because the Aussies were hammered 4-0 by Germany in their opening game. It easily could have been them in Rustenburg.
Needless to say, the US felt good about their chances. Of course, it was bound to be another roller coaster. With the Americans, it always was, and Ghana had a flair for the dramatic too, as we’d come to find out later on.
Part of the reason the US was always in for drama was the conceded a ton of early goals and found themselves in a comfortable position of fighting back. They couldn’t stop conceding early. It was almost part of their DNA.
Bob Bradley was facing the biggest game of his career, and he unquestionably made a major blunder. For some odd reason, he decided to play the struggling Ricardo Clark in place of the hot Edu. It was Clark’s first start since the opening game of the tournament.
Bradley’s second mistake was reinserting the previously suspended Robbie Findley in for Herculez Gomez. Bradley was sticking by his guys. Admirable, but not smart.
And so it wasn’t a surprise when four minutes into the game, Clark was stripped of the ball in midfield, and Kevin-Prince Boateng fired past an ill-positioned Tim Howard from 20 yards to give Ghana the lead.
It was a nightmare start for the US. Again.
Clark was hauled off after 30 minutes. Bradley surely felt bad, but his mistake was obvious. Findley was gone after the first half.
With a slightly revamped team, the US took control. After 15 minutes of the second half, they had a penalty as Dempsey was hauled down. Donovan was never going to miss. It was 1-1, with the USA looking far more likely to win it.
But it went to extra time, and of course, the US conceded after three minutes of the first period. A hopeful hoof sprung Asamoah Gyan to split Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, and with his second touch Gyan scored.
It was the knockout blow. Ghana partied. The USA wondered what could have been.
Just like four years earlier, Gulati was given the chance in the aftermath of the game to throw his support behind Bradley. No dice. Instead, he said how disappointed he was.
It was a golden chance for the US. But a team only has so much magic.
In the quarterfinal, with an even bigger spotlight and hope thrust upon them, Ghana ran out of fairy dust too. Or you can choose the alternate version of the story: Luis Suarez happened.
When Ghana crashed out in the most heartbreaking circumstances, it was a blow to people all over the world. But for the Black Stars, it was another big step. They beat the US 2-1 again to knock them out for a second consecutive tournament, and had gone further than ever before whilst capturing the heart of the world.
Meanwhile, the loss to Ghana was the single biggest reason that Bob Bradley was sacked as USA coach a year later, and Gulati finally landed Jurgen Klinsmann. The US will always have that goal against Algeria. But they could have had much, much more.
“Those USA people again.” That was Ghana star’s Kwado Asamoah first reaction to the 2014 World Cup draw, which placed the USA and Ghana together again in a group with Germany and Portugal that can be pleasantly described as daunting.
Both the US and Ghana are underdogs. They will meet on the first Monday night of the World Cup in Natal at the Arena das Dunas, and play round three: a rare must-win opening game.
The loser is all but out. A draw does neither side any good. For the Americans, three times should be the charm. The United States, a country with 291 million more people than Ghana, should not lose to that country in three consecutive World Cups.
But the fact that the Americans have the people, the money, the infrastructure and the equipment in theory doesn’t play in international soccer. Ghana’s top talent plays in the best leagues on the best teams in the world.
But it is Ghana. We’re not talking about Brazil or Spain here. Ghana are a good team with a few great players, a few good players, and quite a few players who aren’t that good. That describes the USA too. In reality, these two teams are just about as evenly matched as two teams can be.
The US should have won in 2006. They really should have won in 2010. And that’s why it just doesn’t average out that Ghana could beat them again in 2014.
But it’s Ghana who have always been underdogs – and that’s where the US likes to be. Both teams have great strengths and potentially crippling weaknesses. So just try picking this game.
In Natal, we’ll likely see the final chapter in this rivalry. Then again, you never know.
Design credit: Mark Willis.