JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The heartbreak lingered, yet Ghana's soccer team exited from the World Cup in heroic fashion after coming within an inches-too-high kick of advancing further than any African team in history.
A day after their devastating shootout loss to Uruguay in the quarterfinals, the Ghanaian players received a South African version of red-carpet treatment — visits Saturday to the homes of former president Nelson Mandela and his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, both icons of the anti-apartheid movement.
"It's a dream come true," said midfielder Derek Boateng after the team met Mandela at his mansion in an affluent Johannesburg neighborhood.
"He is a legend, you know, and everybody is talking about him," Boateng said. "It is the first time we have met him."
Earlier, the team visited Madikizela-Mandela at her home in the black township of Soweto.
"It was a big privilege for me and the players," said Ghana's goalkeeper, Richard Kingson, after that meeting. "She advised (us about) our life and our future, and how to be a good guy and how to control things."
Sowetans greeted the players with applause and cheers as they got off their police-escorted bus, which bore a sign reading, "The Hope of Africa."
The team plans to return to Soweto for a more extensive public appearance on Sunday, and also to visit a shopping mall in Johannesburg, according to organizers of the events. Fans wishing to attend were urged to wear the Ghana colors of green, red and yellow.
The governing African National Congress chimed in, expressing discouragement that once again no African team had reached the semifinals yet lauding Ghana's Black Stars.
"Well-done Ghana for doing the continent, mother Africa and all of us as Africans proud," said ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu. "We salute you."
The Black Stars' loss on Friday night could scarcely have been more agonizing. With only seconds left in extra time, and the score tied 1-1, a Ghanaian header that was about to cross the goal line was cleared away by the arm of Uruguay's Luis Suarez. The ensuing penalty kick by Asamoah Gyan, which would have won the match, hit the crossbar, and Uruguay went on to win the shootout 4-2.
"I'm OK. I'm all right," Gyan told reporters outside Madikizela-Mandela's house — looking like he'd shaken off some of the despair that overcame him after the missed penalty.
"We just have to put it behind us and have fun," said defender Rahim Ayew. "It's part of football."
Asked how he felt, midfielder Sulley Muntari replied: "Not really good."
"But Mr. Mandela and his wife — they give us some happiness," he added. "We will come back."
The Black Stars' coach, Milovan Rajevac, was philosophical.
"We are very satisfied with everything we did," he said. "This is the biggest success in the history of Ghana, but of course we are sad after this match."
In this first World Cup to be held in Africa, Ghana had carried the hopes of the whole continent into the quarterfinal. The other five African teams didn't survive the first round, exiting with a collective record of 2-4-9.
In Ghana, the two state-owned dailies praised the efforts of Black Stars.
"They have also sent a strong signal to the rest of the world how ready Africa is to take on the game's traditional superpowers," said the Daily Graphic.
"The boys played their hearts out," said the Ghanaian Times.
However, Peter Dogbe, a taxi driver in Accra, Ghana, was among many Black Stars fans who felt the referee should have awarded a goal on the Suarez handball.
"FIFA should look at its rules again," he said. "It was total cheating."
At a FIFA-backed education forum in Johannesburg, former Black Star player Anthony Baffoe, now an adviser to FIFA, said watching the Ghana-Uruguay match was excruciating.
"Football can be cruel and yesterday it was cruel," he said. "They will have a tremendous welcome in Ghana. Nobody is angry with them."
Associated Press writers Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, and Graham Dunbar in Johannesburg contributed to this report.