“The Hand of God now belongs to me.”
“I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it.”
Uruguay forward Luis Suarez, a burgeoning forward at the time, remorseless, revelled in playing a useful ‘hand’ in his country’s reaching the last-four after a gap of four decades. And the two-time World Champions did so in the most dramatic, unlikely circumstances. Ghana were millimetres away from becoming the first African nation to reach the semi-finals.
It was arguably the most dramatic minute of extra-time that World Cup history had ever witnessed till that point. It unfolded with the penalty shootout looming. Ghanaian forward Dominic Adiyiah, one of the shorter players in the box, when the free-kick arrived, headed the ball goalwards. Showing feline reflexes while defending at goal, Suarez instinctively palmed the ball away to his right.
The Black Stars surrounded the referee and Suarez was promptly given his marching orders. Ghana had a penalty.
The air in Jo’burg had a sense of inevitability about Ghana sealing a semi-final berth. It was the formidable Asamoah Gyan who was tasked with dispatching the spot-kick. The former Sunderland forward was one of the stars of the tournament till that point, and was a menace for defenders to handle. He had scored three vital goals for his side.
The four-time African champions were all set to kick-start a party at the Soccer City Stadium. The script sounded perfect on paper: Hosts South Africa were knocked out in the group stages on goal difference, here was another side from the continent set to progress to a place where no African team had gone before.
Alas, there was to be no fairytale finish. Gyan smashed his penalty kick onto the crossbar with Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera diving the other way.
Uruguay had their reprieve. Ghana, distraught and flummoxed by the sudden turn of events, had to brace themselves for a penalty shoot-out.
The most defining image during the frantic few minutes that ensued was a tearful Suarez pumping his fists in joy on the sidelines after Gyan had scuffed his and Ghana’s chance. It summed up football: Villains can turn heroes in the matter of seconds. Agony can turn into joy too.
Spare a thought for Adiyiah. He was poised to become his country’s hero and go down in history books as the man who had carried them to the promised land. Shaken and nervy, he took a tame penalty kick in the shootout, which was easily saved by Muslera. The wise old Sebastian ‘El Loco’ Abreu was cool as a cucumber with the decisive kick, deceiving Ghana custodian Richard Kingston with a panenka.
Tournament of unsavoury incidents
It took a while before Gyan and co. left the field, perhaps reflecting on how cruelly they had lost from the cusp of victory. It was unfortunate, that what was arguably the match of the tournament, had ended in such controversy.
Controversies and Suarez have walked hand in hand in subsequent years: Diving, claims of racism, multiple charges of biting opponents. When in red-hot form, he is a bonafide match-winner, almost single-handedly taking Liverpool to the Premier League title. Years later, he would, on occasion, even outperform five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi while at Barcelona.
Keeping in mind how the tournament had played out till that point, this anti-climactic end was not entirely out of tune. The ball that was used during the tournament – Jabulani – had several goalies slamming its awkward bounce. England had a legitimate goal disallowed in what was shaping up to be a thrilling round-of-16 encounter against Germany.
Star Brazilian playmaker Kaka was inexplicably sent off during a group match against Ivory Coast after Kader Keita had orchestrated a magnificent play-acting sketch. The final was weary on the eyes – there were heavy tackles and karate kicks and very little quality football of note.
A Suarez-less Uruguay were edged out 2-3 in a riveting semi-final encounter by The Netherlands, who reached their third World Cup final. Suarez would resurface in the bronze medal match against Germany at Port Elizabeth. The incensed crowd wouldn’t spare him and roundly booed his every touch. The man from Salto epitomised the win-at-all-costs Latin American spirit.
He was not the first player who tried to bend the rules to hand his side an advantage, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. No other tournament cried out for the rules of the game to be revised, like the 2010 edition. As for the chain of events that ensued in Johannesburg, Suarez, the perennial anti-hero rubbed his hands in glee. Was he right in doing so? With a World Cup semi-final spot on the line would any of us have taken a different route?