At the blast of the final whistle the Black Stars bench raced onto the pitch in ecstasy. Led by the enigmatic Ratomir Dujkovic, the players hugged and gave each other a pat on the back after resoundingly beating the Czech Republic on the world stage.
It was Saturday, June 17, 2006. The Black Stars were making their debut appearance at the FIFA World Cup in Germany and, having lost their opening game to Italy, victory over the Czechs was a big deal. Two goals, a clean sheet and three valuable points – it was truly a good day at the office.
But as the players and technical team members savoured the moment, a 20-year-old Asamoah Gyan was a bit hesitant. It took him a few minutes before he left his seat on the bench to join in the celebrations. His demeanour was mixed, his smile wry. The young striker was still reflecting over his performance on the night which started as virtuoso but end in amateurish fashion.
This was a game which saw Gyan announce himself to the world. Just 70 seconds into the game, he was already on the score sheet, drilling a left-footed shot past Petr Cech in goal for the Czechs. It was a goal that had everything: composure, skill and perfect finishing.
When the build-up to that goal started, it never looked like the ball could ever end up at the back of the net. Ghana skipper Stephen Appiah knocked a high, aimless ball into the Czech Republic penalty area – at best, it was a wayward pass.
However, everything changed when Tomas Ujfalusi mistimed the ball, allowing it to bypass him and into the path of a young Gyan. For a then 20-year-old, the striker still had a lot to do to bring the ball under his control. But Gyan showed great awareness to track the ball down perfectly with his chest, before unleashing a fierce shot into the bottom right corner. Advantage Ghana, 1-0. Virtuoso!
The game had barely started when Gyan put Ghana in the lead. In the 67th minute, the Black Stars had another chance to double their lead after the struggling Ujfalusi brought down Mathew Amoah in the penalty box.
Despite first-choice penalty taker Stephen Appiah being on the pitch, Gyan – the youngest Ghanaian player on the field – assumed penalty-taking duties. Brimming with youthful exuberance, the young striker rushed to take the kick even before the referee had blown his whistle. He scored, but the goal was ruled out and he ended up being yellow-carded for taking the kick without the referee’s permission. Amateurish!
Offering to retake the penalty, Gyan missed, disappointingly striking the ball against the woodwork. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal for the young striker. But it was. In 90 minutes he had written himself into Ghana’s history books for both good and bad reasons. He had unknowingly created a litany of national records.
By scoring Ghana’s opener against Czech Republic, Gyan became the country’s first ever goal scorer at the FIFA World Cup; by getting himself booked, he became Ghana’s first player to be suspended at the World Cup, having already received a yellow in the opening game against Italy; and having missed the penalty, Gyan became Ghana’s first player to fluff his lines from 12 yards in a World Cup game. You can now understand why his celebrations were modest despite the Black Stars triumphing over Czech Republic on that night in Cologne.
All these experiences – and records – at the age of 20. At that tender age he was already making the headlines, making the big calls, failing on occasions but never quitting. In truth, that has always been Gyan’s story with the national team and its fans. Ghanaians love him, sometimes they want to loathe him, and other times they simply hate to love him (pun intended). In fact, if Gyan’s international career was a movie, it would easily pass as the first in the film industry to feature a single character playing the role of both hero and villain.
The former Udinese and Sunderland striker always seems to rise to the occasion when the Black Stars seriously need a hero and, through no fault of his, he is also the easy target when the fans need a scapegoat for the team’s failures.
For instance, in Ghana’s amazing run to the quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Gyan was the leading man, scoring three goals as the team nearly made the semi-finals. Until then he was the hero. Hero against Serbia, hero against Australia and hero against the USA in the round of 16. He was loved, idolised and eulogised.
But when he missed that last-gasp penalty against Uruguay – a miss that denied the Black Stars a semi-final place – he immediately became public enemy no.1. All his prior efforts in getting the team to that stage were relegated. He was catechised and criticised.
The above scenario and more are the reasons why Gyan sometimes feels frustrated with his current status among Ghanaians. His international career has always been somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde story: hero today, villain the next minute.
It is not by luck that he is Ghana’s all-time top-scorer with 51 goals. This is a return that puts him ahead of more-celebrated stars like Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul Gonzalez, Francesco Totti and Alan Shearer when it comes to international goals.
It is neither by chance that the 33-year-old is Africa’s all-time top-scorer at the World Cup with five goals. But currently he feels insecure and appears to habour some sort of fear that his legacies may never be truly appreciated.
For a man who has scored many goals and created that many controversies in equal measure, it is a very difficult situation to deal with. He wants to be remembered for all the good things he has done for the nation, yet for every high point mentioned, a shortfall also pops up.
In one breath he is a legend, a hero, the ultimate GOAT – like him scoring Ghana’s first ever goal at the World Cup, like him sacrificing his health to countlessly play through the pain for the Black Stars, and like him offering to pay for the flight tickets of some of his international teammates.
In another breath, he is continuously reminded of his wastefulness at AFCON 2008, his big penalty miss at the 2010 World Cup against Uruguay, and all of his other low points.
In truth, Gyan is right to feel insecure in the face of all these, but the bigger picture is that he remains the most unforgettable footballer in the recent history of the Black Stars. For all the praises and backlash that come his way, there is an underlining acknowledgement that he will always command.
Ghanaians truly appreciate his efforts and there is no way his legacy will be erased when his playing days are over. That appears to be the striker’s fear. Ghanaians love their football and sometimes emotions override passion. For many years England fans made Wayne Rooney the scapegoat for the Three Lions’ failures, Lionel Messi and Mezut Ozil are currently facing the same problems with the Argentine and German national teams respectively.
But that does not mean the legacies of these players have been erased. Rather, like Rooney and Messi to their compatriots, Gyan’s accomplishments make him a player Ghanaians cannot, and will never, forget.
He's an absolute legend and, following his retirement from the Black Stars, will take his rightful place in the list of Ghanaian greats to wear the national jersey.