World Cup Diary
Day Fourteen: The Decider
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 22, 2006
Funny how insignificance creeps up the hive of giants and makes them squirm. Until this week Ghana was to the United States no more remarkable than an unnamed star in the Andromeda Galaxy—maybe the same black star that appears in the center of Ghana’s flag. Today, the fate of the United States at the World Cup hangs in part on what that little African nation, whose GDP is less than Bill Gates’ personal worth, can do to the Team USA. Today, Ghana is the giant, the United States the upstart, the underdog, the pretender.
These Ghanaians managed to beat the Czechs, 2-0, and claim the upset of the tournament a few days ago. But these Ghanaians also managed to win the African Nations Cup four times, to out-perform the giants of African football (Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa) and qualify for Germany 2006, as the giants didn’t. They take their football seriously, these Ghanaians. They’re the best African squad in Germany. They looked better than the United States in their win over the Czechs, the same Czechs who humiliated the United States, 3-0. And they’re known as the Black Stars all over Africa. And their president (like Italy’s recently defeated president, who owns Italy’s most famous football club), is president of a football club in Kumasi ( Ghana’s Chicago). He’s declared today a national holiday. He’s made it clear that this isn’t just a football match. It’s African taking on the United States, as he put it in his personal message to the team. “The chicken is never declared in the court of hawks,” goes the Ghanaian proverb. The question is, who are the hawks today, and who the chickens? The African press has dubbed the match “The Decider,” an obvious slight at our own “Decider,” and the presumptions he wears on his nation’s sleeves.
“Today is the day,” Ghana’s Accra Daily writes, “the day that Africa has been waiting for in the ongoing World Cup campaign in Germany... The match dubbed ‘The decider’ will determine which of the two teams moves to the next round of the competition.” A win for Ghana ensures it of an advance regardless: If Italy beats the Czechs, Ghana and Italy top the group. If the Czechs beat Italy, Ghana and the Czechs top the group. Either way, Ghana’s six points would be a guaranteed spot in the last 16. Not so for the US. The US must win, but a US victory must have a Czech loss no matter what to ensure an advance to the next stage. The chance of an advance is overwhelmingly against the United States. And in all frankness, I have to admit that at this point I am no longer rooting as fervently for the United States as I did at the beginning of the tournament, when I picked them to go all the way to the semi-final—in part because of my once-beloved Eddie Johnson. The fabulous striker has unfortunately not seen much action. But he also holds the distinction of having made one of the most tasteless comments in this whole competition, comparing the American campaign in Germany to a war (“We’re here for a war,” the 22-year-old forward said. “We came here to battle, we came here to represent our country.”) Leave it to the Americans to degrade the World Cup into another tunnel-visioned idiocy that can’t see past war analogies.
The Americans played their hearts out against Italy and won me over again, but the presumptions that have surrounded the Ghana match have again soured the atmosphere: The assumption is that the Americans can handle the Ghanaians, but can’t be so sure of a Czech loss. Not so fast. The Ghanaians are coming out to play and move on, and one-up the Ivory Coast, whose 3-2 come-back win against Serbia yesterday would have been one of the matches of the tournament had it counted for a bit more: both Ivory Coast and Serbia had been eliminated already. Which leave Ghana as Africa’s last hope for the last 16. “This is an ambition that has to be realised, should be realised and must be realised by the young men who last Saturday tore the footballing world of the Czech Republic to shreds,” the Ghanaian paper HiGhana writes. A big part of me has to agree, much as I wish the American run in Germany had been more cleanly and appreciably successful. The Ghanaians offer a tastier reason to cheer.
“But hold it,” HiGhana writes with the kind of exuberance its players display on the field. “We all have seen such an ambition fizzle out before, when the adulations and expectations were highest. Not once, but twice on the trot this millennium. It happened at the last Olympics in Greece and it came full circle again at the last Nations Cup in Egypt when last matches that could have promoted the nation’s progress at these tournaments were truncated when it mattered most. The Black Stars cannot let this happen to the nation for a consecutive third time, lest it becomes an aberration, an abomination and, indeed, a plague to Ghana football at the highest stage.” The Czechs must be sitting back, watching all this and thinking: a plague on both your houses. The Italians aren’t guaranteed a spot either, incidentally: they’d be booted out if both Ghana and the Czechs win.
My biggest wish would have been a Ghana and US advance, leaving behind the Czechs and the Italians. So the worst-possible scenario would be a Czech-Italian advance, which those two European collaborators could secure with a draw if the US beats Ghana, or with a Czech win if the US beats Ghana but can’t overcome a disfavorable goal differential. All in all, the most exciting day of competition in what has become a wonderful World Cup. Put on your seat-belts—and let’s hope to hell that The Decider doesn’t have the tastelessness of calling Team USA before the game, as he did before the Czech match, and ruin their concentration. I’m, all for a Ghana win, but in the end, between the Black Star and the fifty white ones, I have to give my heart to the fifty, warts and all. And now off to schedule my angioplasty for noon.