Ghana‘s run to the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals in 2010, the first edition to be hosted on African soil, remains one of the greatest performances in the continent’s sporting history, and one of the most memorable campaigns since the tournament began in 1930.
African teams have reached the World Cup quarterfinals only three times, and no team has got closer to the final four than Ghana, who were eliminated on penalties by Uruguay after a 1-1 draw and a controversial finale in Johannesburg.
ESPN spoke to members of the 2010 Black Stars squad to produce an oral history of the West Africans’ run to the final eight, Luis Suarez‘s infamous handball to deny them a place in the semis, and their eventual penalty shootout defeat by Uruguay.
Ghana’s campaign came on the back of their maiden qualification in 2006, when the Black Stars had advanced from a testing group including Italy, the Czech Republic and the United States before falling to Brazil in the Round of 16.
In 2010, expectations were high that they could improve on their previous performance.
John Paintsil: We looked back at 2006 and we could say that we had experience. In 2010 we had the experience and we were largely the same group, we knew where we stood. We played a lot of friendlies before the tournament, including against the Netherlands, and we believed that we could go further. Our expectations were seriously high, particularly as we were hosting on our own African soil, and the supporters were there for us.
Samuel Inkoom: In 2006, I was supporting the team on TV, but in 2010 the atmosphere was fantastic. Our dream was to go to the final. We were together, we did everything you had to do, and we could have made the final if we’d beaten Uruguay.
“We all believed we were ready to showcase our ability to the whole world on African soil.”
Rahim Ayew describes the pressure of wearing the Black Stars jersey.
Paintsil: There was a good structure. We had [members of] the team who played at the 2001 Under-20 World Cup, where we reached the final against hosts Argentina, and we had Stephen Appiah’s group, and the group from 2006, so at the 2010 World Cup, we had, say, three structures. Players like Kevin-Prince Boateng also came in and they were very strong, good players who played at the highest level. In 2010, the atmosphere was also different because Africa was hosting, and the experience brought good spirits. There was both youth and experience in 2010.
Rahim Ayew: We all believed we were ready to showcase our ability to the whole world on African soil. The feeling among the squad was to make history for our country and for ourselves as individuals. If we were able to progress further than 2006, another history would have been made.
Ghana entered the World Cup on the back of a strong showing at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, where they eliminated the hosts and Nigeria in the knockouts before being defeated 1-0 by Egypt in the final. It was the first time the West African heavyweights had reached the final since 1992, but Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac rang the changes over the subsequent months, and nine of the Afcon finalists missed the trip to South Africa.
Inkoom: We were favourites in the final and we were supposed to take the cup. It had been a long time since Ghana won it, but the pressure back home was on us. It was the dream for every player to win something, as we had done at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009. Ghanaian fans don’t sleep; it’s a country where we have passion for the game, so whenever you are on the pitch, you have to do something, you have to make the country happy. When you wear the Ghana shirt, you have to die, you can’t wear it and not want to die. This is what Ghanaians expect.
Ayew: Experience-wise, [the Afcon] really helped the team at the World Cup. Our 2010 Afcon squad was very young, and most of us had not played at the highest stage. The changes in the team didn’t affect us negatively at the World Cup, because those who joined [who hadn’t played at the Afcon] were well-established players like Sulley Muntari, Boateng, Appiah, John Mensah. They were household names already, so we looked up to them, and their inclusion proved to the world that indeed those changes were no fluke.
Ghana’s preparations were hit with a devastating blow in late May, with the news that Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien — the Black Stars’ top performer — would miss out the World Cup. ‘The Bison’ had injured a hamstring in a UEFA Champions League game in 2009, and, he then picked up a knee injury that denied him a second World Cup appearance after returning prematurely for the Afcon.
Paintsil: It was a big blow to all of us, very disappointing, because if Essien had been in the squad at that time, things could have been different in terms of going forward, and at points, you need Michael’s midfield antics in the game. However, a new player came in, and Boateng showed the whole world that he was good enough to play for Ghana. For me, as his teammate, I can say that Kevin played a vital role for us.
Inkoom: It was so sad when the news came that Michael would not make the squad. The whole country was sad because everyone knew his quality. He’s a machine, and when he’s in the midfield you can count on him that you will never have any problems.
Ayew: Michael has been a personal friend, so I was down when I realised he wasn’t going to be [there]. The whole team was disappointed, but there was nothing we could do at the time. I can confidently tell you that if Michael had been [with us], the world would have seen a different Black Stars in the World Cup. He was in his prime years, but we had players who could fill the gap.
While Essien missed out, Rajevac had imbued the squad with young and inexperienced talent, with five players — including Inkoom — drafted into the side having starred at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt.Some of the squad’s other key players, including Kwadwo Asamoah (21) and Boateng (23) were also in the early stages of their careers, giving a youthful characteristic to the Black Stars squad.
Inkoom: The 2010 team was full of young players, some of us who had played in the Under-20 World Cup in 2009. [Rajevac] was there for the final, so he watched a couple of games, and he saw some of us, and we joined the team. It was our dream to join the seniors. We went there, we were humble, but we were also hungry, we wanted to prove a point.
Ghana began their Group D campaign with a tough assignment against a Serbia team that had finished ahead of France in qualification. Despite Aleksandar Lukovic’s dismissal midway through the second half, the Black Stars required an 85th-minute penalty from Asamoah Gyan to secure all three points. It was a goal that firmly established the energetic Gyan — who later dedicated the winner to the whole African continent — as the team’s talisman.
Paintsil: It was a very good start. Your first match is very important, and while we respected our opponents, we weren’t scared of them. It doesn’t matter whether our opposition are ranked first or second and we’re 100th, we’re coming to beat you, we’re coming to compete.
Inkoom: We went to the World Cup to prove a point, not just [to be there] because we’d qualified. It’s a tournament everyone watches, even if you don’t love football, you watch it because it’s the World Cup. I was on the bench watching at the start, and I was so excited because we were all one team, it wasn’t about 11 players, or 16, we were 23 players, and everyone was backing [Ghana] to win. Gyan scored a last-minute goal, a penalty, and the atmosphere was phenomenal — everyone was so happy.
Paintsil: We always believed in Gyan. We defenders, we believed that our strikers would do what they need to do, and he’s a striker who always wants to score. If he doesn’t, you can see his mood is not right. When you have such strikers in your team, you know you can depend on him. When he got [the penalty], I said to myself ‘the boy is going to do it’.
Gyan netted an equaliser in Ghana’s second match in Rustenburg, where the Black Stars drew 1-1 with Australia, and they advanced in second place after a narrow 1-0 defeat by group winners Germany in their final fixture. This set up a Last 16 rematch against the United States, who had been beaten 2-1 by the Black Stars four years previously. Boateng’s fifth-minute opener was cancelled out by a 62nd-minute penalty by Landon Donovan, but Gyan was on hand to slam home an extra-time winner to send Ghana into the Last Eight.
Paintsil: They were a team who we’d played before, and we didn’t need to panic; we just had to go out and beat them. The U.S. had a similar system to Ghana; they played good football, they didn’t balloon the ball, they tried to play the ball on the turf, they were a passing team, like us, and it made it easier. We faced something equal, and used our strength and agility to beat the United States.
Ayew: [To have beaten the U.S. in 2006] really helped us a lot, because you know they still had respect for Ghana. We also knew for a fact that we were going to beat them come what may, as we were a more experienced side than 2006 and had an even stronger team.
Paintsil: That game boosted our spirits and our confidence, because it was very tough, and we pushed and pushed and pushed, and then got that last-minute goal from Gyan. It was a superb, fantastic strike.
Ayew: As soon as Gyan scored that terrific winner against the U.S., my God, I ran from my seat, screamed so loudly that I lost my voice. I knew that was the winner. Team USA will forever be in our shadow!
Paintsil: I couldn’t believe my eyes, I was so happy. I was already tired by the time the goal came, it was unexpected. I would call it individual brilliance, because right before, [Gyan] was pushed and he could have dived for a free kick or anything, but he decided to go for power. He went for it, and he got [the goal] for us. It was an amazing moment, the feeling was something else.
Two-time winners Uruguay awaited in the quarterfinals, having dispatched Korea Republic in the Round of 16, and their attacking trio of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Suarez made them favourites to progress. The two sides met at Soccer City in front of more than 84,000 spectators, as Ghana became the first side since Senegal in 2002 to represent Africa at this stage of a World Cup.
“If I had to do it, I would do it. Whenever you are on the pitch, you aren’t there alone, you are there with the whole country. Everyone’s supporting you.”
Samuel Inkoom describes his feelings about the defining moment of the Black Stars’ campaign at South Africa 2010.
Ayew: They had some quality in their squad, and we were advised to hit them on the counter and to be disciplined at all times. The mood in the camp was so high, as we knew that our destiny was in our own hands to make history for Africa and Ghana. Now, I honestly don’t want to even look back to that game, it still hurts.
Paintsil: We stuck to the team system, playing 4-1-4-1, making sure we were attacking with speed and defending together. Uruguay liked to switch the play from left to right, many diagonals, and their strikers liked to receive balls in behind our defenders. That’s why [Rajevac] brought in Samuel; he’s a speedster, I’m a speedster. We [attacked] together and defended together so that Uruguay couldn’t get crosses into our box. We did it perfectly; you can see that we dominated the game in terms of possession, we were playing while Uruguay were chasing.
Inkoom: Rajevac is a very disciplined coach, he loved tactics. Our gameplan for Uruguay was that we stay, and that’s why he put me, Muntari, Boateng in there. He also wanted us to press, and that’s how we got the first goal [through Muntari in first-half stoppage time]. His mindset is like Barcelona; when we lose the ball, we have to press, and when we won it, we had the confidence to play.
Muntari’s opener was cancelled out by a Forlan effort early in the second half, but no one could find a winner and so the contest extended beyond 90 minutes. The moment for which the game will forever be remembered came in extra-time, when the South Americans failed to deal with a Paintsil free kick; Suarez legitimately blocked Stephen Appiah’s goalbound effort on the line, but he then extended his hand to repel Dominic Adiyiah’s follow-up. Suarez was sent off, and Gyan, so often the hero throughout the campaign, stepped up only to slam the resulting penalty against the crossbar. Suarez celebrated keeping Uruguay alive in the competition, and the contest went to penalties. Gyan took responsibility — bravely — to convert Ghana’s first spot kick and bury his immediate misery, but Mensah and Adiyiah missed and Uruguay progressed to the Final Four.
Inkoom: For me, we won the game, but the rules didn’t favour us. [What Suarez did] isn’t something that should happen in football. If you look at the video, you can see he is very happy to use his hand to hit the ball. I thought it was over the goalline, and that the referee would say goal, but he said penalty. [Suarez] did it intentionally, and after the penalty, he was celebrating. He thought this was what he had to do to save his country, and he did that, but for me, what he did was uncalled for.
Paintsil: It’s very unfortunate that Gyan couldn’t score that last-minute penalty. There’s no way I would have done [what Suarez did]. No African player would do that, as we are very disciplined. We talk about cheating in football, and we cheat with our legs when we tackle someone late, but [using] hands on the line…no. I don’t think I could see any African player doing that because we are athletic, and we could scissor-kick it, or head the ball, or chest it, but I would never see an African player doing that.
Ayew: I would have done the same as Suarez depending on the time left in the game, but we were very angry after our defeat as we believed that, had it been today, goalline technology might have accepted it as a goal.
Inkoom: If I had to do it, I would do it. Whenever you are on the pitch, you aren’t there alone, you are there with the whole country. Everyone’s supporting you. He put the smile on his country’s face, because we [missed] the penalty and they qualified. If it was me, I would have done the same thing, to be there for my country. If I had to take a red, and my country would get to the World Cup semifinals, I would do it. I would make the sacrifice. That is what patriotism looks like, you have to be there for the country. If it was me, I would do the same. He did it, and it works for him.
Ayew: We were very proud of ourselves, even though it was a hard one to take. We knew we had made history, and life must certainly go on. The senior players in camp then really encouraged us to never lose hope as we had more years ahead of us in our playing careers, but there was anger. We felt we were totally robbed of the opportunity to qualify to the semi-final and make that history for our continent, country and ourselves. Our mood in camp was very down, but our senior colleagues really helped in getting over that defeat.
Inkoom: I cried in the locker room. Many of us went to Gyan as well, and we said, ‘Listen, you’re a hero no matter what, forget about everything.’ We went to the other players as well, no one was happy there, everyone was sad, but when you go to a tournament and you want to achieve something, you have to do it [or else you will be] disappointed. We couldn’t do what we had to do, but afterwards, we were happy with ourselves, we were happy with our game.
Uruguay were ultimately defeated 3-2 by the Netherlands, who were themselves dispatched 1-0 in the final by Spain, with Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner securing La Roja their first world title.
Paintsil: We were looking forward to playing the Netherlands, having tested them [in a friendly] before the tournament; we knew their weaknesses. For me, we would have been in the final, and we would have won the World Cup, because our confidence levels were very high. Against Spain, they like to play ball, they’re not direct, they don’t do silly tackles, and they were a decent side — but we were, too, and that final would have been beautiful.
South Africa 2010 represented a high watermark for that talented Ghana generation, who would reach the semifinals in the next four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and qualified for the group stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Similarly, no African nation has managed to emulate their feat in the subsequent tournaments — in 2014 and 2018 — with only two of Africa’s past 10 representatives even reaching the Last 16.
Ayew: I think most African national team players lack the playing time we used to enjoy back in the day at their respective teams abroad, hence their inability to match other teams’ strength and readiness, but I believe Africa will surely bounce back.
Paintsil: We need to build a strong machine from under-17s to the senior level, that will help Africa win the World Cup.
Inkoom: We have the talent and the potential, but what we have to do is to change our mindset, to be strong mentally, to focus a lot and prepare very well. Some of the European countries are not better than African countries, and a lot of players are making Africa proud at club level. We’ll get there.