In its nine decade history, the Fifa men’s World Cup has made countless heroes. From Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff to Romario, Ronaldo and Thomas Muller, some of football’s biggest players shone on the grandest stage of all.
However, the good have often come with the bad. Diego Maradona’s iconic “Hand of God” goal got him a lot of hate in England. The ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ in Spain 1982 saw the Austrian and West German team being criticized by many in their own countries. The same edition saw West Germany’s Harald ‘Toni’ Schumacher’s sickening tackle on Patrick Battiston go unpunished. The impact resulted in the Frenchman being knocked unconscious with two missing teeth and three cracked ribs.
On July 2, 2010 in Johannesburg’s Soccer City, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez got himself inducted in the World Cup’s ‘Hall of Infamy’ and became public enemy no 1 in Ghana.
In the first Fifa World Cup to be held in Africa, Ghana were the only African side to make it to the knockout stages with the likes of Nigeria and Ivory Coast bowing out in the group stages.
A win in extra time over the USA saw the Black Stars one win away from being the first team from the continent to make it to the semifinals. The whole continent was backing the Ghanains to script history.
“We weren’t just playing for Ghana. We were playing for Africa. We could feel the whole of Africa behind us. We could feel it on our shoulders,” Ibrahim Ayew, a member of Ghana’s 2010 squad told The Athletic.
Standing in their way were Uruguay. Led by the trio of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Suarez, Oscar Tabarez’s side had become fan favourites in South Africa.
All that was to change on that fateful night in Soccer City.
Ghana took the lead just before half-time through Sulley Muntari before Forlan leveled the scores with a gorgeous free-kick ten minutes into the second half. Despite the scoreline, Ghana were the better team on the day, successfully nullifying Uruguay’s attacking threat.
With neither side finding the winner in 90 minutes, the match went into extra time. Even as fatigue set it, Ghana cranked up the pressure and it paid off…almost. Enter Luis Suarez.
As the clock ticked past 120 minutes, Ghana won a promising free-kick on the right. John Paintsil’s delivery was flicked on by Kevin-Prince Boateng. Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera came off his line to punch the ball away but got no connection as the ball fell kindly to Stephen Appiah. The Ghana No 10’s left-footed shot was cleared off the line by Suarez with his shin. The ball bounced back into play with Dominic Adiyiah reacting quickest to head the ball goalwards.
Almost instinctively, Suarez put his hands up and swatted the ball away. The linesman was quick to spot the infringement and out came the red card. Suarez tried to act surprised but did not contest the referee’s decision as he left the pitch in tears.
Up stepped Asamoah Gyan. The striker had scored from two penalties in their group matches and had also scored the winner in their round of 16 win over the US. Ghana believed they had all but created history.
But fate had other ideas. Gyan smacked his penalty against the crossbar. Muslera went and thanked the crossbar as his teammates celebrated. As he was walking into the players tunnel, Suarez celebrated wildly rubbing salt in Ghanaian wounds.
“After the penalty was missed, you came out and then celebrated like you’re on top of the world by hurting people. At least be a professional, feel the pain. Just go to your dressing room and celebrate and then nobody will see it,” Paintsil told BBC.
In his autobiography ‘Crossing the Line’, Suarez wrote, “And then I saw the ball go over the bar. He had missed. And one word came out of my mouth: ‘Gol!’ The feeling, the sense of release, was the same as if we had scored. Unbelievable. I’ll never forget it. That was when I realised what I’d done. That was when I realised the sending-off had been worth it. I had stopped a goal, they had missed the penalty and we were still alive.”
For Gyan, it was a miss that will probably haunt him forever: “Today, any time alone, it still haunts me. Sometimes I feel like the world should go back again so I can redeem myself, but I know this is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” he told TV3 Ghana years later.
Unlike his teammates, however, Gyan holds no grudges against Suarez, telling Talksport, “I always say if I was Suarez I would have done the same thing to save my country. He’s a hero there. Although people see him as a cheat, he did what he had to do to get his country to the semi-final. People do hate him, but I’m in the game as well. He did what he had to do to get his country to the semi-final.”
That miss deflated Ghana while making Uruguay believe that luck was on their side. In the penalty shootout, Gyan scored but saw two of his teammates miss as Uruguay held their nerves to book their place in the semifinals after a 40-year wait. At full-time, Suarez was hoisted by his teammates on his shoulders as he took off his shirt to celebrate.
In the immediate aftermath, Suarez was vilified by Ghanains for robbing them off a deserved win. That the Uruguayan would double down on his actions only made them hate him more.
“Mine is the real ‘Hand Of God’. I made the save of the tournament,” he said before cheekily adding, “Sometimes in training I play goalkeeper so it was worth it.”
Suarez has been steadfast in defending his actions, stating that he was rightly punished for it and that he cannot be held responsible for Gyan missing the penalty.
“Gyan is the one who missed the penalty. But everyone said that I had done something terrible. Or that I had been selfish. But I had stopped a goal with my hand because I had no choice. In fact, it wasn’t even a case of making a choice; it was a reaction. Thanks to the handball, Uruguay were in the semi-finals. More than having cheated, I felt as if I had made a sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t selfish. It was giving everything for my country and for my team. That’s the way they saw it in Uruguay,” he said.
The 2010 World Cup proved to be the stepping stone for Suarez as he secured a move to Liverpool months later where he would go on to become a fan favourite while also finding himself mired in controversies. At Barcelona, he won all available honours and cemented his status as one of the greatest strikers in modern football.