JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 02: Asamoah Gyan of Ghana reacts as he misses a late penalty kick in extra time to win the match during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Quarter Final match between Uruguay and Ghana at the Soccer City stadium on July 2, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
“If I hadn’t been a striker I would have been a goalkeeper,” Luis Suarez, in Chapter 3 of Crossing the Line, the memoir he published in November 2014, revealed.
That chapter is, rather aptly, themed ‘Hand of Suarez’.
It details the events before, during, and after July 2, 2010, the night when Suarez — a man who is certainly no stranger to controversy — committed his greatest act of villainy, in a Fifa World Cup quarter-final match that has gone down as one of the least forgettable games in the competition’s very long history.
Uruguay had come back from an incredible Sulley Muntari goal, responding in the second half through a stunning strike of their own, from the boot of Diego Forlan, that edition’s stand-out player.
Ninety-or-so minutes of regulation time produced no winner, forcing the game to stretch for another 30 minutes.
Deep into extra-time, with things still level and still tense, the game spun out of the realms of reality into something so fantastic that even the best Hollywood script-writers would have struggled to conjure up.
Proceedings were almost over when John Paintsil, Ghana’s tireless full-back, swung a ball in from the right, the latest wave in a relentless onslaught on their opponents’ area.
The Black Stars — with Soccer City, the stadium, overwhelmingly on their side — could sense the Uruguayans’ creaking, sustained only by their garra charrua spirit.
That Paintsil cross felt like Ghana’s last crack from open play. The delivery created a melee in a heaving penalty box; just the sort of situation that Suarez, lover of chaos, relished.
“I love saving goal-bound shots when we’re playing three against three or four against four in training, throwing myself in front of the ball to stop it — usually, though, it’s with my foot or head, not with my hand,” the 35-year-old, in his autobiography, shares.
“So when I saw that the ball had gone past me against Ghana, I automatically went back to the goal line without thinking about it. I could see our goalkeeper Fernando Muslera going out to meet the ball and one of the Ghana players heading the ball. I was on the line and I kept the ball out with my knee.”
The man denied was Stephen Appiah, Ghana’s general captain, due to retire from a sterling international career after the tournament.
Yet Suarez robbed him of that final flourish — fairly, though, it must be said.
The ball bounced right back, to the feet of substitute Dominic Adiyiah, and Ghana had one more chance to end it all.
Adiyiah, hero of Ghana’s U-20 World Cup triumph of the previous year, was still seeking the perfect lift-off for his fledgling senior career, and this could have been it. Even if he never played another game for Ghana — and, in fact, he didn’t have many more afterwards — this single, sparkling memory would have proved the ultimate souvenir.
But there Suarez was, again, with a block — stopping the ball, stopping Ghana, stopping time.
His methods were illegal this time and, even though his crafty little self tried to shift the blame onto teammate Jorge Fucile — another who swung an arm at Adiyiah’s goal-ward header, albeit unsuccessfully, and already set to miss the next game on suspension — the referee’s job was far too easy.
Game over — for Suarez, surely, and almost certainly for Uruguay.
“I walked off the pitch, devastated. I was crying and the only thing going through my head at that point was: ‘We’re going out of the World Cup, we’re going out of the World Cup …’ I had been sent off and we were going home.”
Soccer City is quite the spectacle, you know.
Its architectural design is aesthetically pleasing, but it also stands proud as an engineering marvel. With all the work that must have gone into making it fit for purpose as South Africa 2010’s centrepiece, ‘The Calabash’ was clearly carved to withstand great stresses.
What the designers didn’t plan for, however, was the sheer magnitude of tension that steadily built up between Suarez’s handball and Asamoah Gyan’s run-up for a spot-kick so weighty. The arena swayed, by the chorus of so many vuvuzelas, in support of Africa’s remaining representative.
Gyan, like Suarez, had scored the goal that had qualified his country for this stage. Now, though, was his chance to take the Black Stars a little farther and set them apart as Africa’s first-ever semi-finalists.
To Suarez, that meant the game was as good as lost.
“Gyan was going to take the penalty and he had already scored a couple from the spot in the tournament and he had hit them brilliantly, so I was convinced he wasn’t going to miss.”
It’s probably the last thing Ghanaians and Suarez would ever agree on.
But, well, Gyan defied those expectations — to his own dismay and lifelong torment — finding the outside of the crossbar, instead of the net, without the comfort of a rebound.
“The feeling, the sense of release,” Suarez says, “was the same as if we’d scored.”
His wild celebration in the immediate aftermath, just before he walked down the tunnel to start serving his sentence, confirmed that much. Gyan’s miss, complementing Suarez’s handball — as blatant as any seen at the World Cup since Diego Maradona in 1986 — had kept Uruguay’s hopes alive, with La Celeste going on to win on penalties.
Suarez monitored that shootout in the dressing room with the Uruguay kit-man, Guillermo, “practically having a heart attack”.
What Suarez actually did have, however, were pangs of regret.
“I was thinking about the fact that I couldn’t play in the semi-final because of the ban and I started to wonder: ‘Why did I do that? Why did I handle it? Maybe I could have headed it?’”
Maybe he could have. But he didn’t — couldn’t, really, given that he “had a thousandth of a second to react and [he] was exhausted from 120 minutes of football” — and Ghana suffered.
About that, though, Suarez wasn’t losing any sleep.
Not a wink.
“I would have felt more guilty if I had had to take a penalty and missed it. Or if the referee had not spotted it and not given a penalty and if I had not been sent off. Then I would have felt guilty. But I did what I had to do to stop the goal. The referee did what he had to do by sending me off. It was Gyan who didn’t do what he had to do.”
On the eve of Friday’s Qatar 2022 game between Ghana and Uruguay — their first meeting since that gruelling battle in Johannesburg, with Suarez and a handful of other veterans the only survivors — the accomplished striker, now very much in the twilight of his career, has expressed those same sentiments.
“I sometimes see people from Ghana when I’m in Barcelona and they ask me for photographs,” he wrote in his book.
“They say to me: ‘You are the one who handballed it’, and they laugh about it. They don’t hold a grudge.”
Actually, dear Luisito, most do, although some — including Gyan, that fateful night’s other headline act — believe the prospect of revenge shouldn’t be the biggest incentive for the current Black Stars team as they prepare to face the old enemy.
“We’re human beings; people will have it at the back of their minds about this revenge thing against Uruguay,” Gyan, who is as retired as an ‘active’ footballer could ever be, told Ghanaian television station TV3 this week.
“It’s a normal thing but it shouldn’t get to our heads too much. We have to stick to the game-plan. Thinking about revenge wouldn’t help.”
That last encounter between Ghana and Uruguay came at a more advanced stage of the World Cup, with a place in the last four on offer.
The prize this time — a place in the Round of 16 — isn’t quite the same, but it is nonetheless both valuable and highly desirable.
Ghana are better-placed to grab it, with a draw potentially enough to see them through, having three points in the bag already from Monday’s 3-2 defeat of South Korea. For Uruguay, who have scraped just a point from two matches, even winning might not be enough (if the Koreans are able to take what they need off leaders Portugal).
You have the feeling, though, that Ghana would leave disappointed even if sharing the spoils at the Al Janoub Stadium does their ambitions no harm; nothing short of victory would scratch that 12-year itch, permanently banishing those painful memories that are only thinly covered by the sands of time.
Ghana don’t need to win. They have to win.
Before all this happened, these two countries — over 7,000 kilometres apart — hardly had anything to do with each other; had their names ever appeared together in any context, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.
In the ensuing period, however, the sight/sound of both ‘Ghana’ and ‘Uruguay’ in the same sentence has stirred up strong emotions, even in the hearts of neutrals.
It will be pretty much the same even after their upcoming encounter, but Ghana would hope that, this time, they don’t end up with the short end of the stick.