Delightful defending and fickle Brazilians in the Milton Keynes of Brazil: why Portugal vs Ghana was ace

Chris Flanagan reports on his barmy trip to Brasilia as Portugal and Ghana crash out in a blaze of glory (or not)...

It was when Pepe started acting as peacemaker that everyone knew something very strange was going on between Portugal and Ghana.

Brasilia is a peculiar place, and it was producing a peculiar game of football. Supporters from either country sat side by side wondering just what version of the sport they were watching.

"Even if we go out, I just hope Ghana do us proud," one fan of the West African country told me before kick-off.

We were perched up in the gods at Brasilia's incredible 73,000-capacity stadium, so steep at the top that each row required the sort of handrail you might see at Valencia's Mestalla.

Among us were Scots, New Zealanders, Costa Ricans and pretty much every other country you could mention. Even an Argentine with a giant Lionel Messi mask turned up to haunt Cristiano Ronaldo.

Cris cross

If Ronaldo – or 'CR7', as the Brazilians insist on calling him – won the Ballon d'Or, his rival Messi has been the one who has shone at this World Cup. With most Brazilians supporting Portugal, given the country's heritage, Ronaldo was welcomed onto the pitch like a hero. Pepe, a Brazilian who switched nationalities to play for Portugal, was roundly booed.

Brasilia is a largely sterile and soulless city – but there was none of that in the stadium. The capital is pretty much the Milton Keynes of South America: founded as recently as 1960 when the government wanted a more central base than the coastal Rio de Janeiro.

Now with a population of 2.8 million, by the year 2000 it was the biggest city that had not even existed at the start of the 20th century. Chicago took that honour in the previous century.

The streets are all arranged in neat rows, with wide expanses of grassland. It was meant as some sort of utopia, although the vandalised sign at the airport saying 'f*** FIFA' suggested not everyone was entirely happy.

Brasilia is lacking something. Like Washington DC, the smartly designed government buildings are impressive but there is no real vibrancy around the city as a whole.

It was a huge contrast to Manaus, the place I had departed at 4am that morning after watching Switzerland beat Honduras.

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Inside Brasilia's stadium, though, it was very different. The venue is named after Garrincha, so it was probably not a huge surprise that it threw up such a match of eccentricity.

Both Portugal and Ghana had to win and hope the USA lost to Germany. In Portugal's case, they knew they might have to win by as many as four goals, after losing 4-0 to Germany in their opening group match.

It was 32 degrees, and from the start both teams were going for it. Portugal were without five players because of injury, an almost unheard of figure during a World Cup, while Ghana were missing Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng for internal disciplinary issues.

As a result, Ghana didn't have much of a midfield. Ronaldo had several chances before John Boye somehow managed to acrobatically slice the ball into his own net – an impressive finish right into the top corner.

A few minutes later Boye came within inches of scoring another own goal, to the laughter of the crowd.

My new Ghanaian friend in the stand was getting stressed, constantly trying to check the USA score on his battered and travel-weary phone. But even that was nothing compared to the second half.

Jumpers for goalposts

News came through that Germany had scored against the USA. If Portugal scored three goals they would qualify. Ghana needed two.

Immediately, Ghana equalised through Asamoah Gyan, who broke Roger Milla's record for the most goals scored by an African at the World Cup – six in total over three tournaments. But then he somehow missed with another header from six yards which would have put Ghana in front.

"We are an average team," Ronaldo had said of Portugal before this match, and we were starting to see what he meant. Both sides were bringing off defensive players and putting on strikers.

Ghana brought on a second son of Pele – Abedi that is, not Edson Arantes do Nascimento – as Jordan Ayew joined brother Andre on the pitch. The match became increasingly crazed.

One team would attack in numbers against the opposition's virtually non-existent defence, and somehow contrive to squander the opportunity. Then the other team would have a go. All that was missing were rush goalies. Why not? Both teams were going out anyway – they should have just put the keepers up front and really have made this interesting.

Brazilian fans were now becoming a little more flexible about their support for Portugal. They would back the Portuguese when they were attacking, and then shout 'Ghana! Ghana!' when the Africans advanced.

As stress levels rose on the pitch, the now-saintly Pepe had to wrestle his Portuguese central-defensive partner Bruno Alves away from a confrontation with Gyan; this, the man who was sent off against Germany for his own moment of lunacy.

Portugal, however, did win it through Ronaldo after an error from the Ghanaian keeper Fatawu Dauda.

Ronaldo wasted more chances in the final minutes, but Portugal were still three goals short of going through. They won the match 2-1, but neither side had really been victorious as they both headed for the plane home. At least they had given it a go, though. My Ghanaian friend was still proud.

Most left the stadium still scratching their heads and trying to figure out how 35 shots had produced only three goals in as bizarre a game as they might ever see.

But this was Brasilia. A place like no other in Brazil had produced a game like no other.


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