Luis Suarez remains denigrated for denying the continent her historic moment, but has the decade-long castigation been misdirected?
You’d forgive Luis Suarez for avoiding social media on July 2, owing to the deluge of abuse that may come his way on the anniversary of Ghana’s painful exit at the 2010 World Cup.
It’s exactly 11 years since the Uruguay forward’s deliberate handball at Soccer City prevented Ghana from advancing to the semi-final of the global showpiece. The blatant act, deep into extra time, denied Africa her first representative in the last four of the month-long competition at the 19th time of asking.
The Black Stars had matched the achievement of Cameroon and Senegal in 1990 and 2002 respectively in reaching the quarter-final, but they could and should have gone one better.
They were awfully close, even closer than the Indomitable Lions — who were seven minutes away from success over England before Gary Lineker’s 83rd-minute leveller — and debuting Teranga Lions, who thrived until Ilhan Mansiz’s golden goal three minutes into extra time put paid to their amazing journey.
With little time remaining, Oscar Tabarez’s team wouldn’t have recovered from what was possibly the final kick of the game. Suarez denied Stephen Appiah and the entire continent their headline moment but what followed immediately after rankled at the time and continues to…even 11 years on.
Asamoah Gyan stepped up but could only hit the bar, causing Ghanaians and the majority of the continent to cover their eyes in horror.
A few inches lower and the West African nation would have gone on to face eventual runners-up The Netherlands in Cape Town.
It was going to be hard to pick themselves up after that last-gasp miss and Milovan Rajevac’s team went on to lose 4-2 on penalties. Ask the majority of Africans today and they probably don’t remember how events played out following that miss.
Suarez has undoubtedly been the villain of the piece since that night in Johannesburg, as uncontrollable tears turned to elation within seconds.
Unsurprisingly, a large section of fans still bear a grudge against the legendary forward for what has been termed cheating and a lack of professionalism. Watching replays of the incident shows how Jorge Fucile, Uruguay’s left-back in the encounter, had thrown an arm out intending to stop Appiah’s header.
Where he desperately failed, though, the forward succeeded and Ghana had victory snatched in painful circumstances.
The post-match reaction from the South Americans rubbed salt in the wounds of every Black Star, their supporters and, by extension, the entire continent.
“Mine is the real ‘Hand of God’. I made the save of the tournament,” Suarez said, referencing Diego Maradona’s goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final win over England. “There was no alternative but for me to do that and when they missed the penalty I thought ‘It is a miracle, and we are alive in the tournament.”
While Diego Forlan’s post-match interview didn’t irk the beaten side, Tabarez’s defence of his striker further aggravated the situation and has perhaps caused the resentment to fester.
“Saying we cheated Ghana is too harsh a word to use. Yes, he stuck his hand out but it’s not cheating. It was instinctive,” the coach said. “When there is a handball in the penalty area there is a red card, and the player is thrown out of the game.
“[Suarez] can’t play the next match. What else do you want? Is Suarez also to blame for Ghana missing the penalty?”
In fairness, maybe there was credence to Tabarez’s rhetorical question.
Taking the hurt aside, there’s got to be an admission that Ghana still had qualification in their hands. John Mensah’s wild response to Olegario Benquerenca pointing to the spot was unmistakable and many on the African nation probably also believed they were through.
On the one hand, one can’t fault Suarez, who believed he did what he had to hoping to give La Celeste a chance.
Despite John Pantsil’s claim, there’s reason to believe anyone would have done the same in the same situation: risk everything and back your goalkeeper to make the save or the forward failing to hold his nerve. For Gyan, it was the latter.
The Ghana superstar went on the become Africa’s all-time top scorer at the global showpiece with six goals, but he lost the opportunity to score what could have been a treasured strike…perhaps the greatest of his career.
All he had to do was keep the ball lower…on target…and the continent would have had a representative in the final four for the first time at the World Cup.
On African soil, too, it was going to feel even sweeter and praised to high heaven.
People hardly remember that encounter produced some of the competition’s notable goals — with Sulley Muntari firing the West Africans into a lead with a thunderous strike from over 40 yards just before half-time while Forlan levelled with a free-kick from a seemingly impossible angle — rather, Gyan’s failure from the spot defined that night at Soccer City.
Of course, the Black Stars were inconsolable after the defeat and were made to lick their wounds. No African nation has come close since and it’s now 21 editions without one in the World Cup semi-final.
11 years on from Gyan’s huge miss, the continent wonders what might have been had that strike harrowed into roof of the net, rather than thunder off the bar. It would have been enduring joy, elation and a trip down memory lane, rather than lasting disappointment and regret.