JOHANNESBURG // At 6am, Claude Le Roy's telephone rang. The then coach of Ghana was asleep in the team hotel in Accra, the country's capital. What woke him was news of an imminent crisis. The first 10 days of the 2008 African Cup of Nations had until then progressed well for Ghana, the hosts.
What Le Roy heard sent a jolt through him. He dressed and rushed to the foyer, where he saw suitcases ready to be packed into a car that would take his best centre-forward away from the squad, the tournament and perhaps international football forever. Asamoah Gyan, then 22, had resolved to quit the squad. In act of solidarity, Baffour, his brother and reserve for the Black Stars, had agreed to go with him. Their mother had received death threats.
Noisy and savage criticism had been raining on Asamoah Gyan in newspaper columns and through radio talk-shows, and the family had heard enough. Le Roy had also had his fill of being scorned locally for selecting Gyan as his centre-forward when the player's finishing had been so wayward in the side's first two tournament wins. Le Roy intercepted the Gyans before they could leave. Meetings ensued, cabinet ministers became involved and the Gyans stayed in Accra. To say Asamoah Gyan has never looked back from that low moment would be an exaggeration, but things have certainly got a lot better for him.
Being the chief scorer for a country that invests so much in the performance of its national side brings regular pressures and constant scrutiny, yet only a perverse observer of the Black Stars over the last two years would doubt that Gyan is as important an asset as any in the make-up of the young squad who could tonight achieve Africa's greatest milestone in the history of the World Cup, a place in the semi-finals.
This reporter spent some of that fateful day in Accra with Le Roy, talking over his early start to the day and the venom of the criticism that had so affected the Gyans. "Honestly, I have never come across anything like it," said Le Roy, who has worked in Africa, on and off, for 30 years, in challenging locales like Congo and Cameroon, with demanding audiences like those of Ivory Coast and Senegal.
"And it was so misplaced and unfair. I felt so much for the player, and his family. "I also couldn't, as a coach, imagine the team without him in it. I have worked in my career with Samuel Eto'o, George Weah and Roger Milla. I'd put Gyan at their level." In fact, Le Roy will be more specific: "He's like a mix of Eto'o and Didier Drogba." Gyan has scored three of Ghana's four goals in South Africa; all three have been match-winners, his half-volley against the US in extra-time in the last 16 among the goals of the tournament.
Throughout, under the strategy of Milovan Rajevac, who succeeded Le Roy, he has played as a lone centre-forward in a formation of 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. It has sometimes been an exhausting task, but he has applied great intelligence and strength to it. "He's so important to us," said his colleague Dede Ayew, who will miss the meeting with Uruguay through suspension. "When we are under pressure, we look to get the ball up to him because he's so good at holding it, great with his back to goal and then quick on the counter-attack."
Just ask the US's Jay DeMerit or Australia's Craig Moore, defenders terrorised by Gyan. Nor did Germany's Per Mertesacker, whose height advantage over Gyan was challenged by the striker's nimble leaping to meet high balls, have an entirely comfortable time when the Germans defeated Ghana 1-0 in the group phase. Gyan talks of his own growing confidence and how a good season with Rennes in France's Ligue 1 - he scored 13 goals in 29 matches for a mid-table side - had armed him for a good World Cup. The experience of the 2008 African Cup of Nations is still raw enough that he is reluctant to talk about that episode.
It was followed by a disappointing first season in France - one goal in the 2008-09 championnat - following his move to Rennes from Italy's Udinese. "That was a hard time, too," Gyan said, "but I was injured a lot and that can make you lose some confidence. I feel this season and the World Cup may be a turning point, but I won't become big-headed." Painful experience of the ups-and-downs of his job have inoculated Gyan against that.