Asamoah Gyan is remembered by many in England for the way he left Sunderland rather than what he did when he was there, but it’s also worth remembering few footballers have suffered on-pitch heartbreak as acutely as the Ghana striker.
Indeed, mention Gyan name to anyone outside of England or his home country, and they will bring up one unbearable, heart-wrenching moment.
Mention it to his compatriots and you’re likely to hear the same, but the only difference will be the praise that comes before it.
Gyan’s penalty miss at the 2010 World Cup is the sort of pain most of us can never know. It’s the anguish and tears of millions distilled and injected into your bloodstream, like being snapped out of a lucid dream or acid trip with a one-inch punch to the heart.
It absolutely hurts to f*ck, is what I’m saying here.
That a hero of Ghanaian football suffered this fate, and many other avoidable misfortunes, hurts even more.
Now Gyan will end his career having achieved so much and yet so little.
Gyan might not have been the first Ghanaian to play in Serie A, but he was at least one of the first to contribute at such a young age, breaking through at Udinese as a 20-year-old.
Supremely confident, as you’d expect of someone who was among the top scorers in Ghana’s top flight as a teenager, his ability to embarrass defenders and create chances from nothing was ideal for a team looking to re-establish itself as a challenger to Italy’s elite after the Calciopoli scandal had shaken up the top flight.
Take this goal against Palermo, for example, where he twists his opponent’s blood, breaks his ankles, and then drizzles the blood over the ankles as if dressing a salad.
Or this, against Siena, where he somehow managed to replace his neck with a trampoline at some point between seeing the cross from the right wing and connecting with it.
He could have been a star in Udine, but injury struck just as he was breaking through, so he needed to start again – first with Rennes, and then with Sunderland.
After a difficult first season in France, he proceeded to hit double figures in the next two campaigns, with two different clubs.
Not just double figures, though: his 13 for Rennes represented 25% of the team’s goals that season, while his 10 for Sunderland weren’t far short of that mark.
There’s no archetypal Gyan goal, and for a player who often earned his living running at defenders, you always had reminders that backing off and keeping your distance would lead to things like this.
While he scored more for Rennes, the Sunderland achievement is arguably greater, considering what preceded it.
That miss against Uruguay was one of those rare occasions in football where everything genuinely is black or white. Score and you go through, miss and it’s still up in the air, but realistically miss and you go out because that’s how football’s bad-guy narrative invariably works.
After all, Dominic Adiyiah, the man whose header was handled on the goal line by Luis Suárez to set up Gyan’s initial spot-kick, ended up missing the decisive penalty in the shoot-out that followed.
Adiyiah’s career never quite recovered – he left Milan, his club at the time, without playing a game, and did not travel to the following World Cup in 2014. Given the scale of the blow, and the mental hardship, that’s forgivable.
Gyan, however, both scored in the shootout and hit the ground running at his next club, in a new country with unfamiliar surroundings.
If that doesn’t demonstrate his quality, I’m not sure what does – well, apart from this goal, maybe.
Sadly, his time in England may well be tainted by the conversation around his departure, just weeks into his second season in the North East.
Links with Al-Ain in the UAE prompted a confluence of all of British football’s hypocrisies, to the point that you could probably have filled in a bingo card if you so wished.
When you take a new job with higher pay in a ‘normal’ job, it’s a no-brainer. When you do so in football, it’s a betrayal.
When players move to developing leagues towards the end of their careers, it’s a retirement league. When the same league attracts players in the prime of their career, they’re all that’s wrong with football.
When a player moves to an established league and gets his wages increased, he’s showing ambition. When he does so away from Europe, he’s a money-grabber.
It is understandable to see how Sunderland fans might have felt upset to see their top scorer move on just as they’d hoped to push on as a club, but the wider coverage of the move verged on the protectionist.
It was as if the Premier League had Gyan, so no one else was entitled to him – or at least not one with new money.
What’s that, something about new money existing among Premier League owners at that time too? Apparently we don’t like to talk about that.
Some proceeded to use Gyan’s scoring record – better of a goal a game – as evidence of the UAE league being weaker than the Premier League, ignoring that no one had claimed the opposite.
It’s like a father giving his son a headstart in a hundred-metre dash, only to declare the result void when it looks like the son might win.
When Gyan looks back on his career, he will likely have regrets, but this will relate to his own on-pitch actions, against Uruguay at the World Cup and against Zambia at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, where he again missed from the spot.
When it comes to more than a decade and a half of regular goals for club and country, including Ghana’s first ever at the World Cup finals, we imagine he’ll feel as though he did a pretty good job.
By Tom Victor