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 African nation that has made great strides in their region over the years – not that many outside of that region take notice. In the third straight World Cup, the countries will face each other believing that they can and will beat the other.
The Ghana–USA rivalry so far 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.
It seemed simple enough: Beat Ghana, bank on a battered Czech Republic losing to 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 against the Italians, playing Ghana was a lifeline. 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 Black Stars shocked people by beating the Czech Republic 2-0 in Cologne. Now, the winner of this game would go through to the knockout stage.
The Americans were favorites. But one look at the team-sheets would have told you that the U.S. was in trouble. U.S. manager Bruce Arena had the elder statesman Claudio Reyna in midfield to combat the bulldog Ghanaian duo of Stephan Appiah and Michael Essien. The Americans were without Eddie Pope in the center of defense so fringe player Jimmy Conrad stepped in for his first World Cup game.
It was an early nightmare for the U.S. when Reyna was stripped of the ball, got hurt 22 minutes in and Ghana scored the opener. In the 40th minute, Reyna had to be stretchered off and his international career was over. But the Americans fought and as the game went on, they started to take over. On the stroke of halftime, DeMarcus Beasley slung a perfect cross into a charging Clint Dempsey, which the current U.S. captain smashed in on the volley. Suddenly, the Americans were one goal from the knockout round.
But two minutes later, Ghana received a questionable penalty. With the smallest nudge from Oguchi Oneywu, Ghana forward Razak Pimpong dropped to the ground and the referee point to the spot. Ghana’s then captain Stephen Appiah scored from the spot-kick to give the four-time African Cup of Nations winners a 2-1 lead heading into halftime. 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.
The first thing to understand about Ghana’s meeting with the U.S. in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the incredible emotion involved. The Black Stars were the only African team remaining at first World Cup ever hosted on the continent. It was up to them to fly the flag for their country but also in a broader sense, for all of Africa. The United States were coming off the most dramatic moment in their history, Landon Donovan’s stoppage time winner against Algeria to send the U.S. 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.
It’s fair to say that both teams felt support and pressure they had never experienced before. The setting was Royal Bafokeng Stadium. The Americans were used to it: they beat Egypt 3-0 in the Confederations Cup in 2009 and drew England 1-1 in the first game of the group stage at that location. It was the smallest venue at the South African World Cup and was the perfect place for the fans to play a factor.
The U.S. were once again favorites but this time it wasn’t a big margin like it was expected last time. Ghana seemed lucky to make it this far. 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 Black Stars went through on goal difference over Australia, because they were hammered 4-0 by Germany in their opening game. It easily could have been them in Rustenburg.
The U.S.’s manager Bob Bradley was facing the biggest game of his career and he unquestionably made a major blunder. For some reason, he decided to play the struggling Ricardo Clark in place of Maurice 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 Americans took control. After 15 minutes of the second half they had a penalty as Dempsey was hauled down. Donovan made the penalty and it was 1-1, with the U.S.A. looking far more likely to win it. But it went to extra time and of course the U.S. conceded after three minutes of the first period. A hopeful hoof sprung Asamoah Gyan to split Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit. With his second touch Gyan scored. It was the knockout blow. Ghana partied. The U.S. wondered what could have been once again.
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 Bradley was sacked as U.S. coach a year later and Jurgen Klinsmann was brought on to lead the U.S. to the next level. The US will always have that goal against Algeria. But they could have had much, much more.
“Those USA people again.” That was Juventus’ and Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah’s first reaction to the 2014 World Cup draw, which placed the U.S. and Ghana together again in a group with Germany and Portugal that can be pleasantly described as daunting.
Both the U.S. and Ghana are underdogs. They will meet on June 16 at the Estadio Das Dunas and play in a rare must-win opening game that will also be round three in the rivalry.
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, 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. Ghana who have always been underdogs and that’s where the U.S. 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.
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