Few men have ever, in a sporting context, felt the crushing burden of hope and expectation under which Asamoah Gyan, ultimately, stumbled and fell on a July evening in Johannesburg last year.
It wasn't just his fellow Ghanaians willing him to score the penalty that would have dealt an appropriate punishment to Luis Suarez of Uruguay (and now Liverpool), who in the last moments of extra time in the quarter-final of the World Cup had used his hands to keep out a seemingly certain winning goal, but all of Africa, and probably every football fan on the planet except a few million on the eastern seaboard of South America. No African team had ever reached the last four of the World Cup. On his own continent, with the score at 1-1, Gyan had history at his feet. He hit the bar.
At the Sunderland FC training ground, on the balmiest afternoon of the year so far, not that a fellow raised in Accra considers it anything other than perishingly cold, Gyan offers his own perspective on that dramatic evening.
"Before the penalty I said to myself, 'This is it. I will put this in, do my dance, and make everyone happy.' I knew everyone had confidence in me, and I knew myself that I was going to score, because my record with penalty kicks was excellent. I had already scored two in the World Cup. Everyone was already celebrating."
Suarez, meanwhile, had been sent off, and was on the touchline, inconsolable. "But in football anything can happen," says Gyan. It is his mantra, repeated throughout the interview, and who can argue? After all, that night in Soccer City neither he, a Rennes player, nor Suarez, of Ajax, expected to find themselves so soon on opposite sides in the English Premier League. Liverpool visit the Stadium of Light next month.
"I was going to place the ball to the goalkeeper's right," Gyan continues, "but then I saw his movement, also to the right, so I hit it straight, and it hit the crossbar. It was the saddest moment, not for me alone but for the whole of Africa. At home nobody criticised me; I'd scored most of our goals and had a great World Cup. But I didn't sleep for a week. It was good for me to think about Roberto Baggio, who did so well for his country but missed a penalty in the  World Cup final. These things happen in football. And I was very happy that I scored the second penalty [in the ensuing shoot-out]. If I had missed that penalty too, I might have quit."
Nonetheless, Uruguay won the penalty shoot-out 4-2, and it was Suarez who ended the evening celebrating the prospect of a semi-final, albeit one he would miss with a ban for his goal-line handball. "People in my country hate him," says Gyan. "In his shoes I would have done the same. But the people in my country... he cannot ever go there. He is the most hated man in Ghana." What, there is no corrupt politician, no gangster, more loathed by Ghanaians than a 24-year-old South American footballer? A wry smile. "No."
Gyan too was only 24 at the time (he turned 25 in November), and yet he handled his devastating miss with uncommon maturity, kick-starting his own rehabilitation by insisting on taking the first penalty in the shoot-out. It was that strength of character, as well as a manifest instinct for scoring goals, that convinced Steve Bruce to break Sunderland's transfer record to get him. On the last day of last summer's transfer window, Gyan was landed for around £13m.
He quickly began to justify his new manager's faith, scoring on his debut, as a substitute at Wigan, and twice at home against Stoke City in his first full start. He also scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, and bagged one in Sunderland's remarkable 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge, but the equaliser that really turned the Black Cats into Cheshire cats came last month against Newcastle United. In the fourth minute of added time, with Sunderland losing 1-0 at home having been routed 5-1 away by the old enemy, Gyan's inelegant goal won him an enduring place in Wearside hearts.
"That was amazing," he recalls. "Since I arrived, that's what everyone was talking about, the derby, always 'Are you ready for the derby?' After we lost the first game 5-1 I called my family. I predicted 1-0 and said I would score the one, but they got the first goal. With just a few minutes to go I could see people leaving the stadium, and I said to myself, 'I have to do something, I have to bring them happiness.'"
Happy though Sunderland fans undoubtedly were to see the Geordies denied, it was to be a bittersweet weekend for them, as rumours began to circulate that Gyan's strike partner Darren Bent had played his last game for the club. "I went home after the Newcastle game, and everything was normal," Gyan recalls. "The next day my agent called me and said 'Darren's leaving'. I thought, 'Am I dreaming, or what?' All of a sudden he was leaving? There had been no sign, I'd never seen sadness on his face. It was very surprising. But, you know, in football you play for the team but money also counts. He has a family and he got a good deal. He thinks he made the right decision. But we lost a good player."
Sunderland are still seventh, and goals have not exactly dried up since Bent's departure for Aston Villa, but four in the last two Premier League matches have not been enough to prevent back-to-back defeats, at home to Chelsea and away to Stoke. Tomorrow, fifth-placed Tottenham arrive at the Stadium of Light. "I feel more responsibility, sure [now Bent has gone]. And with Danny Welbeck injured I am the only striker left. But I don't ever put pressure on myself. I have no doubt at all about my qualities."
Maybe this self-confidence stems partly from his place in the family: he is the youngest of four children born to a businessman, a trader in maize, and a headmistress. "We were not rich, but we always had what we needed," he tells me. For someone who has lived in this country for barely six months, I venture, his English is remarkably good. "That is because Ghana was colonised by the British, so we learn English at school. If a Ghanaian doesn't speak English, then maybe he didn't go to school."
His boyhood in Accra was filled with images of English football, but one stood out above all others: Eric Cantona with his collar turned up. "That was the first shirt I wore, always with the collar up. Me and my father always followed Man United, although the last time I went back I saw lots of boys wearing Sunderland shirts, which made me really happy."
It was hardly surprising: Welbeck has Ghanaian heritage; John Mensah, on loan from Lyons, is Ghanaian, and so is Sulley Muntari, loaned from Internazionale. "Sulley is the architect of most of my goals in the national team," says Gyan. "I'm very happy he's here."
Gyan was 18 when he left his homeland, signing for Udinese, who loaned him out to Modena in Serie B. It was there that he experienced racism for the first, and so far only, time on a football field. "It was a game against Verona. I heard my name being chanted but I didn't know what they were saying. Afterwards I was told."
In July 2008, he joined the French club Rennes but his keenest ambition remained a move to the Premier League. "And I like it here, because referees allow you to play. Tackles that in Italy would be fouls, here you have to stay on your feet." The toughest defender he has faced so far, he adds, is John Terry. "Not at Stamford Bridge. He didn't play that day. But here. He knows how to play. He's a bit slow but intelligent. Actually, the guy who has really impressed me is [Charlie] Adam from Blackpool. There are big stars in this league, but he's the one I follow, ever since I first saw him play. I never knew anything about Blackpool before."
As of last month, he also knows that the Lancashire resort in winter is not a home from home for a Ghanaian. Nor, for that matter, is Wearside. "It's amazing," he says, with a mighty laugh. "I lived in Udine, which is the coldest part of Italy, always raining. In Rennes it rains a lot too. I prefer African weather. The first time I came to Europe was January, and I arrived in just a shirt. By the end of that week, I was sick. Now I'm used to it, but I don't like it. I wear gloves every time."
As for the cultural differences between Ghana and England, he has enjoyed telling his team-mates how, in Africa, if you misbehave as a child, your parents beat you. "Here, you can say 'I hate you' to your dad. In Africa, never. African parents beat you even for what you're thinking." Again, his gleeful laughter fills the room. It's not hard to see where he gets his reputation as the life and soul of the dressing room, and he takes his boisterous personality on to the pitch too, in the form of his funky goal celebration.
"Music is my life, and I always did this one particular dance in nightclubs. My friends said, 'Why don't you do it when you score?' So I did. The first time was against Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations last year, the semi-final. And people in Ghana loved it." They did, in fact one woman loved it – and him – so much that she very publicly threatened to kill herself if he didn't marry her. "Yeah. She did. I don't know her. And that's sad, but I appreciate it too." Is she still with us, despite not receiving a proposal? "I haven't heard."
I ask him what the nightlife is like in Sunderland. "I don't know. I never go out. I just go home and watch Jackie Chan movies. Or phone my friends back in Ghana. I put them on speaker, and chat the whole day." So his whole salary goes on phone bills? "Hahahahaha. Yeah!"
Just imagine the calls home, I say, if he were ever to get approached by his favourite team. "Ha. Well, everybody wants the best. I'm not thinking about moving, but if other clubs are interested in my signature it shows I'm doing my job here. Man United is where I want to be. It's my club. But I'm here, and I'm really happy here."
On my way in, I couldn't help noticing the walls are festooned with pictures of Sunderland heroes, going back to Len Shackleton and beyond. Has he ingested anything of the history of the club? "Yeah, Queen and Phillip," he seems to say, which makes me wonder whether there has been a royal visit I should know about, until I realise that he means Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. "Quinn is an amazing man, a great man. And I know Phillips scored lots of goals."
They included two out of the three Premier League hat-tricks scored by Sunderland players, the other claimed by a certain Darren Bent. Gyan has never scored a hat-trick, but since three is his lucky number he insists it's only a matter of time.
"When I came here, [Kieran] Richardson wore three, so I took 33. It is a number that helps me so much. A hat-trick against Tottenham? You never know. Louis Saha scored four last week. Maybe I'll score seven in a game. In football anything can happen." Another great peal of laughter. "Anything."Reuse content