How heroism and heartache shaped Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan

How heroism and heartache shaped Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan

Ghana has come to the end of its own golden era in football. Over the past two decades, they’ve boasted world-class players and been guided by well-known managers, and Asamoah Gyan represents the excitement, joy and power of this period for the Black Stars better than anyone.

The journeyman striker graced three World Cups, from Germany to Brazil, and became a figurehead of the beautiful game, not just in Ghana, but in wider Africa. Now plying his trade in Turkey, Gyan has enjoyed quite the journey, one that has been filled with money, controversy and a bucketful of goals.

Accra provided a young Gyan with his first platform to perform, but the talented, promising striker soon outgrew Liberty Professionals and opted to move to Europe to pursue his dream. Udinese took a chance on this little-known Ghanaian 18-year-old, athough he didn’t get his first break in the senior squad until a two-year stint at Modena in Serie B came to a close.

His displays in Italy’s second tier, where he netted 15 times over two seasons, earned him a place in Ghana’s World Cup squad for the finals in Germany in the summer of 2006. Many thought that taking a teenager, who was yet to prove himself against top-level opposition, represented a risk for Ghanaian coach Ratomir Dujković, however, by the time the squad selection came around that summer, Gyan had already amassed 10 appearances for his country and scored eight times, helping them to their first-ever qualification for a World Cup.

Going into the tournament that summer, Gyan was attracting interest from several European clubs, but these teams were restrained by the seeming anonymity of this young striker. Anyone who wasn’t following Italian lower league football hadn’t really seen Gyan play; they’d heard whispers of his blistering pace, his powerful shot and his impressive strength but were yet to witness it for themselves.

The expectations back home in Ghana were rising by the day leading up to the tournament and, with the African nation drawn alongside Italy, the United States and a strong Czech Republic, few people outside Ghana were expecting the debutants to progress into the last 16. Eventual champions Italy would deny them an opening victory but the likes of Petr Čech, Pavel Nedvěd and Tomáš Rosický were beaten by the exuberant Ghanaians in the second round of fixtures.

In what turned out to be the fastest goal of the tournament, Gyan stabbed the ball past Čech from the edge of the area to give Ghana an unlikely lead. The pace of Gyan and his strike partner, Matthew Amoah, was giving the Czechs all sorts of problems, and Tomáš Ujfaluši brought down Amoah in the penalty area midway through the second half, seeing red for the offence.

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The excitable Gyan stepped up to bury it home but was booked for time-wasting. That yellow was his second of the tournament and meant he’d be suspended for Ghana’s pivotal final group game against the US. Either way, Gyan struck the post with his penalty, but it didn’t matter because Sulley Muntari doubled Ghana’s lead late on to secure their first World Cup win. A second victory followed against Bruce Arena’s Americans, though Gyan would have to wait four years for his chance to make his mark against the North Americans.

Despite the return of their striker, Ghana succumbed to a star-studded Brazilian team boasting Ronaldo, Kaká, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos. However, the game didn’t pass by without incident for Gyan, who picked up two more bookings to add to his growing collection of cards, and was dismissed just after half-time. It was a steep learning curve for the youngster, who was given his second yellow for diving, but the tournament did little to harm his burgeoning reputation.

Spartak Moscow flirted with the striker and came close to his signature, only for Udinese to pull the plug on the deal and for Gyan to sign a new five-year deal at the Friuli. Just two of those years were served by a striker who was struggling to reproduce his World Cup quality on the pitches of calcio.

Midway through his last season in Serie A, Gyan jetted off back to his home country, where the Africa Cup of Nations was being held. The pressure on the hosts was intense, with Gyan almost walking out of the camp after suffering a number of personal attacks during a group stage victory over Namibia. He was persuaded to stay by the coaching staff, but Cameroon halted their progress at the semi-final stage.

French club Rennes came in for Gyan’s services in 2008, a move that saw him find his old form again. With the French game a little more open than the one in Italy, the explosive striker had more space to work in, and more importantly, more space in behind.

After a year of settling in, the fruits of his labour were finally evident in his second campaign. His pace and power allowed him to reach double figures in league goals for the first time in his career as Rennes managed a top-half finish. After 13 goals in the 2009/10 Ligue 1 season, Gyan found himself hitting peak form ahead of the most important summer of his career.

For the first time in history, the World Cup was rolling out its red carpet for stars in Africa, and Ghana had qualified alongside Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the trailblazing hosts South Africa for this historic tournament. The continent was sent into a football frenzy for weeks after Siphiwe Tshabalala fired the hosts into the lead in their opening match against Mexico.

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Every African nation came together as one to support each other across the continent, and Ghana, with Gyan in top form, became the neutrals’ favourites. The striker converted two penalties, first against Serbia and then against Australia, to earn Ghana four points from their opening two groups games. A narrow defeat to Germany would do nothing to dampen the spirit, with a showdown against the US awaiting them in the knockout stages.

By the time Ghana faced the Americans in Rustenburg, the Black Stars were the only African nation left standing, with the rest knocked out during the group stages. Ghana were not only carrying the hopes of a nation, but of a continent.

Kevin-Prince Boateng surged through the Americans and slotted past Tim Howard at his near post to give Ghana a popular lead before Landon Donavon struck to take the tie to extra time. With both teams lacking in energy, Boateng’s hopeful ball forward landed between the USA’s central defenders but, before they could deal with it themselves, an invigorated Gyan burst through them, took the ball under his spell, and blasted it past Howard to send most of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium into ecstasy. Instantly he became an African icon.

Much like a Shakespeare play, however, Gyan was soon cutting the figure of a tragic hero as they faced Uruguay in the quarter-finals. Ajax’s Luis Suárez was La Celeste’s talisman, in a similar situation to Gyan with two goals against South Korea propelling them through their last-16 tie.

Once again, Ghana were the underdogs and had to play Uruguay knowing that no African team had ever reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. In first-half stoppage time,  Muntari picked up the ball 40 yards from goal and fired it past Fernando Muslera in the Uruguay goal. That moment of brilliance was matched by Diego Forlán just after the break when the striker curled in a stunning free-kick to draw his side level.

Fans across the continent were on the edge of their seats. South Africa were the hosts but all the support in the stadium was being channelled towards Ghana. The rest of the game passed by without many clear chances and extra time came and went. However, a few minutes of crazy controversy were about to shape the reputations of two players.

With Ghana pushing for a late winner in stoppage time in extra time, Suárez batted away Stephen Appiah’s header on his own goal line and was deservedly sent off. Now, Ghana had the chance to rewrite history and become the greatest African World Cup team of all time – and the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Asamoah Gyan.

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Composure isn’t something you associate with Gyan’s game; more one of flamboyance and explosivity. You wouldn’t trust Gyan to score a pressure penalty in training, but an entire continent had to trust him to score one to take his country through to the semi-finals.

The ping of the crossbar must still echo in his head along with the images of a joyous, demonic Suárez celebrating off the pitch. Having missed the spot-kick, Gyan stepped up just minutes later and managed to find the net in Ghana’s first penalty of the shoot-out. However, not all of his Ghanaian teammates could follow suit and, after misses from John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah, the Black Stars were defeated. Suárez was branded a cheat by fans the world over and Gyan was reduced to the role of tragic hero.

After his rise to global stardom, Rennes found it difficult to hang onto Gyan. The striker was on the radar of several Premier League clubs and, just as it looked as if he would have to stay in France, Steve Bruce’s Sunderland swooped to sign him on deadline day. The fee was in the region of £13m, making him the club’s most expensive signing.

The striker scored on his Black Cats debut to put his new side ahead away to Wigan, latching onto Jordan Henderson’s cross from deep to volley past Ali Al-Habsi as English football fans caught sight of Gyan’s bizarre dance that would go down in Premier League folklore.

That dance was rolled out in various Premier League stadiums, with the Ghanaian netting at White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge. Gyan played an influential part in one of Sunderland’s greatest victories in recent history, slotting their second goal past Petr Čech to earn a 3-0 win away at champions Chelsea.

After the ball had hit the net, Gyan, looking somewhat baffled as to what was going on, made his way over to the away fans to perform his moves and was joined, hilariously, by Bolo Zenden at the corner flag. The Dutchman proved that you need a bit of rhythm to pull off Gyan’s famous shapes.

Throughout his first season in England, Gyan would feature heavily in a Sunderland side punching above their weight, forming a formidable strike partnership with a prolific Darren Bent. Despite a lofty 10th-place finish for the Black Cats, finances were still an issue at the club and the wage bill was becoming a target for cuts.

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Late in the summer of 2011, after starring in Ghana’s friendly draw with England at Wembley, Gyan was sent out on loan to Al Ain in the UAE. Sunderland’s chairman, Niall Quinn, cited that the deal was financially beneficial for both the player and the club.

As footballers often do when they move to a club outside Europe, Gyan fell off the radar for the four years that he spent in the Middle East. Al Ain enjoyed plenty of success with the Ghanaian in their side, winning the UAE Pro League three times in the four seasons, with Gyan scoring 73 goals in just 65 games.

The 2014 World Cup put Gyan back on the footballing map as Ghana travelled to Brazil to compete in their third consecutive finals. The reward for their consistency? The group of death. Eventual champions Germany and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal waited in South America alongside Ghana’s familiar World Cup opponents, the USA.

After a disappointing defeat against the Americans in their opening match, Ghana became the only nation at the tournament to stop Germany winning as they came close to a famous win in Fortaleza. Mario Götze had put the favourites in front with his knee just after half-time but Ghana staged an unlikely comeback and drew level through André Ayew’s bullet header just a few minutes later.

Then came the turn of Gyan to beat Manuel Neuer. Muntari latched onto a loose ball and spotted Gyan peeling off the back of Per Mertesacker. The Arsenal man couldn’t catch Ghana’s captain as he raced through and whipped his shot across Neuer and into the far corner. His teammates joined him in another strange but joyous celebration as they lumbered across the pitch in a line, bouncing to an imaginary beat.

You couldn’t question the joy with which the entire team played in that tournament, but their previous successes were not repeated as Cristiano Ronaldo helped Portugal to victory in a dead rubber in the final group game, with both sides heading out.

Even though he shone for a relatively short amount of time during that tournament in Brazil, football fans around the world were reminded of the jubilance, the dynamism and the heartache that comes stapled to the name of Asamoah Gyan, a player averaging a goal every other game for Ghana and who, at his best, was as devastating as any striker from the continent at the time.

By Billy Munday  @BMunday08

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