World Cup review, Part IV: The second hand of God

This is part four of our series looking back at the 2010 World Cup. To read part three, click here.

There was one game at the 2010 World Cup that is worth reflecting on more than any other. Sure, it’s fun to revel in the exciting memories of South Africa’s opener against Mexico and Spanish fans no doubt treasure their maiden global title earned in the slugfest against the Netherlands. But it was Ghana vs Uruguay that left an imprint on our memories like few matches ever could.

A decade later the footballing philosophers among us are still trying to solve the chestnuts left behind by the game, particularly its defining moment. Does self-sacrifice have a place in the sport? Is there such a thing as justice on the pitch? Should a blatant manipulation of the rules receive a harsher punishment?

The quarterfinal always promised to be an intriguing matchup. We already touched on just how imperious this Uruguay side and their talisman Diego Forlán were in part II. By this point they were starting to realise that and were dreaming of a first final since 1950. Blocking their path were hopefuls Ghana.

As the last African side left at Africa’s first World Cup there was no question they assumed the role of home team and enjoyed the bulk of local support. They were full value for it, too. Robust and resilient, they contained a number of standout names in their ranks. There was young André Ayew — son of the legendary Abedi Pele; Kevin-Prince Boateng had earned a reputation as a battling midfielder in Europe; Sulley Muntari had just won the treble with Inter Milan; and, of course, there was Asamoah Gyan, the forward with a fiery turn of pace and incongruous number three on his back.

Brazil great Pele once famously, and erroneously, predicted that an African nation would win a World Cup by the year 2000. A decade after that cut-off date only Senegal had managed to even reach a quarterfinal. This was the continent’s golden chance to go one better … and from there, who knows? Understanding the hope that rested on this fixture goes some way to explaining the revulsion it still inspires today.

The initial 90 minutes were fairly entertaining. Muntari took a pop on the eve of the first half — his near-40m bouncer plopping neatly into the bottom corner. Forlán would equalise in the 55th, with an acute free kick that was misjudged by the keeper. Extra time it would be. 

A tired 30 minutes later, as the inevitable penalties loomed, a free-kick was lobbed in the box. The ball was flicked on, ping-pong pandemonium ensued and eventually it was directed forwards by a red shirt. It was a certain goal — at least within the parameters of the rules. 

What the replays would show — which the referee did exceptionally well to catch in real time — was that Luis Suárez had leapt up and swatted the strike away with his hands. The clearest red card and penalty you could get.

Had Gyan slotted that penalty away, the mischievousness of Suárez probably would have been laughed off. But he didn’t. He hit the crossbar and Ghana went on to lose in the penalty shoot-out.

Remarkably, Gyan found the fortitude to take and score the first penalty mere minutes after missing the most important kick of his career. Two compatriots of his missed, however, setting up Sebastián Abreu to win the game with a Panenka (a chip) — a ludicrous end to a deranged game of football.

And so it was. Suárez’s game-saving act was immortalised, for better or worse. To many, there could be no crime so heinous, so utterly unsportsmanlike.

Consider the most infamous displays of impropriety we’ve seen on a professional football pitch: Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick; Paolo Di Canio’s referee push; Pepe’s ruthless kicking assault; Neymar’s diving antics. All acts maligned in their own way, yet none had the power to snuff out a continent’s belief so cruelly in a millisecond; to remind the world just what a harsh, unforgiving place it really is. If football is a game of hope, then this was its antithesis. 

Were Ghana cheated out of spot in a World Cup final? Technically the rules were followed to the letter: Suárez broke them and was dismissed. There was no sleight of hand that conned the referee or anybody else. It’s an explanation that satisfied few in Accra.

Ghanaian authorities immediately began to make noises about changing the rulebook; a suggestion that gained a fair few proponents around the world. Rugby has the penalty try, Basketball has goaltending, why couldn’t football have something similar? 

It’s not unthinkable that such a change might have (or could still) come to fruition. A game in the previous round haid already sown the seeds for a significant structural development after all: Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” against Germany was a major factor in nudging goal-line technology into widespread use.

Uruguyuans see things differently, of course. From their perspective, Suárez is a hero, not a villain; a martyr who is willing to put his own tournament life on the line for his country. There could be no act more noble.

The striker, himself, was rather proud of what he had done.

“The Hand of God now belongs to me. Mine is the real Hand Of God,” he said, referencing Maradona’s iconic goal against England in 1986. “I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper, so it was worth it. 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’.”

Unfortunately for the South Americans, the price paid was only good enough for one more round and they came up short against a spectacular Dutch outfit in the semifinals.

In the decade since, both Ghana and Uruguay have failed to produce sides that match their 2010 counterparts for potential and expectation. The chief protagonists, meanwhile, have enjoyed very different career paths. 

Gyan signed for Sunderland that summer and went on to enjoy a double-figure debut season. Then, just as he looked to have the makings of a cult Premier League player, he jumped at the chance to reportedly quadruple his salary and moved to the United Arab Emirates. He would flitter between the Middle East and China in his prime years, arguably forfeiting any opportunity to make a significant impact on the global game at club level.

Suárez let no such opportunity pass him by. He would produce a ridiculous scoring rate at Liverpool before winning everything there is to win at Barcelona. Yet, his antics have often overshadowed his proficiency. He has earned a nasty reputation for repeatedly diving, was accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra, and has been caught biting opponents three times — the last of which inspired Fifa itself to issue him with a four-month ban.

In the face of the undisputed vulgarity of those charges, the second hand of God is, at the very least, infinitely more nuanced.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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