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You have doubtlessly heard paeans to the power and spirit of the World Cup, the way the whole world’s attention raises the tournament’s emotional stakes and evokes waves of pride, awe, devastation, confusion (the bad kind), confusion (the good kind), and satisfaction in those who watch and participate. Those paeans are mostly true, though their Extremely Lofty tone omits another critical part of what makes a World Cup: so much weird, hilarious stuff happens. Consider basically everything Ghana has accomplished in their 180 minutes of play.
The Black Stars opened their tournament the way many relative minnows do: hanging tough against a better team, yet ultimately falling behind in the second half as their superior opponents’ quality showed through the muck of the game. In this particular case, Ghana fans had extra reason to be aggrieved, as the man who put Portugal ahead of their team was Ronaldo, who drew and converted a pretty soft penalty in the 65th minute. Ghana could have folded, but instead they redoubled their efforts to attack the Portuguese goal, which led to a quick André Ayew equalizer then an even quicker pair of Portugal goals from João Félix and Rafael Leão.
If you are a neutral who just wants to see goals, you must admit that’s kind of silly, especially since Ghana’s goalscorer is one of the two people over 30 on the team—which is the youngest in the World Cup—who actually plays, and the other is his brother Jordan. Funnier still is that Ghana made the ending of the game even more silly in the 89th minute when winger Osman Bukari scored, and instead of grabbing the ball out of the goal to help his team push for an equalizer, he ran over to the sideline and (poorly) hit Ronaldo’s trademark celebration. “My upbringing doesn’t permit me to be disrespectful to elders let alone one of my idols,” he said afterwards, trying and failing to clarify his intention.
That’s a discouraging loss, one of many expected for a green Ghana team in a tough group. You can have all the cool young players you can fit on a plane bound for Qatar, but if you only play better teams, your guys might not necessarily get a ton of opportunities to show their stuff. Canada is a cautionary tale here.
Ghana matched up against South Korea in their second group match on Monday, and they spent the first 20 minutes or so of the game pinned back in their own half by strong Korean pressure. But in the 23rd minute, Jordan Ayew, the younger of the brothers, got into some space against the run of play and engineered a veteran’s foul, then smacked a beautiful free kick right into the most dangerous part of the box, which Mohammed Salisu put away. Most teams would collect themselves and take a breath, yet after a VAR check, Ghana kept pushing, only seeming to draw power from their success. With a positive feedback loop in effect, Ghana started carrying themselves like the superior, more experienced team. They hardly had the ball in the first 24 minutes, then Mohammed Kudus, Ghana’s coolest young guy, capped off an impressive, patient sequence of passes with a header to double Ghana’s lead.
South Korea wasn’t done fighting though. Determined to push for a result, Korea’s tempo rose after halftime, despite some serious headwinds. Son Heung-min wasn’t quite at his world-beating best, and star defender Kim Min-jae was pretty clearly ailing from a calf injury that kept him out of practice between the Uruguay and Ghana games. Maybe this thing would have broken differently for Korea if Kim was fully healthy; after all, Korea got to the World Cup thanks to their stellar defensive record, which Kim played the most significant part in solidifying. What was most impressive about Korea’s second half was how little they relied on their best forward player and defender. Lee Kang-in was incredible throughout, and handsome striker Cho Gue-sung scored a pair of killer headers within two minutes to equalize only 15 minutes into the half.
At this point, it was clear this game was special. Both teams were dead-set on driving for the three points, and both faced a half hour of relatively uncharted soccer. South Korea hadn’t ceded two goals in a competitive game since their last World Cup match in 2018. The players propelling Ghana, meanwhile, had very little experience to draw on, except for the Ayews, who maybe had too much. The sheer density of action was tremendous. Both fanbases brought a raucous energy to the stands. Something was going to break. It turned out to be South Korea. Mohammed Kudus is ascendant.
Ghana finally started to play for the win, by which I mean, they packed almost every single player into their box and bet on their ability to put out the series of fires they were actively setting. The South Koreans engineered what felt like 25 good chances off of set pieces and dangerous crosses into the box, and Ati Zigi had to make at least two huge saves to keep Korea from equalizing. He did, and Ghana won, 3–2.
I began watching this game full-throatedly rooting for South Korea, yet Ghana was too fun and silly to resist. I love a team that only plays five-goal games, whose players celebrate instead of doing the prudent thing. Ghana is having fun out there, and it’s hard to argue that their success has nothing to do with their spirit as a team. They know they have everything to play for and nothing to lose, and unsaddled from the weight of expectations, their rising star Kudus is playing free. All that stands between them and a most unlikely knockout round appearance is their blood enemies, Uruguay. The last time they met in the World Cup, of course, Luis Suárez infamously drew a red card by batting a sure goal away with his hands, and Uruguay went on to oust Ghana. Only one Ayew remains from that team (half-brother Ibrahim went to South Africa in 2010), but the nation remembers, and they know they have the chance to put the Uruguayans to the sword.
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