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‘The Hand of the Devil’ and why the Ghana-Uruguay game is such a big deal

As Ghana and Uruguay face each other to decide who goes through to the next round of this World Cup, a look-back at what happened in 2010, bringing heartbreak to a continent and infamy to a player.

Luis Suarez, Uruguay, Ghana, Uruguay ghana 2010 match, qatar world cup, express explained, fotball, indian expressUruguay's Luis Suarez and teammates during training in Qatar. Suarez has remained unapologetic about the events of 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

“Some Ghana fans feel you are the devil itself. They are looking forward to retiring you.” So said a reporter to Luis Suarez in a press-conference held before today’s Ghana-Uruguay clash.

If nothing else, today’s game will be tense and testy. In Ghana’s memory, the wounds of 2010 run deep — the last time Ghana and Uruguay played each other in the quarter finals of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. Uruguay emerged as the eventual winners, knocking the African nation out of the tournament just as they were on the cusp of making history.

As the two countries play for only the second time in their history, stakes could not be any higher as both teams need a positive result in this fixture to proceed into the Round of 16.

The Indian Express takes a look at that fateful day in 2010 when Africa’s heart was broken, a man became a footballing supervillain, and a new footballing rivalry was born.

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The fateful quarter final in the 2010 World Cup

Not many might remember what happened in the 2010 quarter final before Luis Suarez decided to take matters into his own hands. Earlier in the game, Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera had been beaten by a routine long range strike by Sulley Muntari that swerved at the last moment. Skipper Diego Forlán had equalised with a swerving free kick of his own.

As the game wore on, Ghana looked like the better side as the Uruguayan defenders got increasingly leggy and the Africans kept on creating chances. However, till the 120th minute, the match was known more for the antics of the Jabulani (the infamous ball used in the 2010 World Cup) than the actual football played.

Then, all at once, everything changed. In what would almost certainly be the last chance for Ghanaians to win the game in extra time, a free kick was awarded to them from a decent position in the right flank. After John Paintsil chucked the ball into the Uruguay box, complete chaos took over for the next six seconds.

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Kevin-Prince Boateng flicked the ball from a deeper position in the near post over a melee of Uruguayan defenders towards the waiting head of John Mensa, only for goalkeeper Muslera to come out bravely and punch it away. But Muslera did not get good contact, with the ball landing at the feet of Stephen Appiah who had the goal a couple of feet in front of him with the keeper out of position. However, Appiah’s lunging strike would not cross the line, hitting the shins of Luis Suarez, who was now standing right in front of goal as the last line of defence. The ball looped up and fell straight to the head of Dominic Adiyah, who headed it firmly towards the goal.

But the ball was comfortably saved. Just not by the goalkeeper, but Luis Suarez who punched the ball away with his hands, preventing what would be a certain goal.

As the Ghanaian players erupted in protest, the referee blew his whistle while the Uruguayan players sheepishly looked at each other. Suarez was shown a red card for the handball and Ghana got a penalty. Suarez walked off the pitch in tears, as Ghana’s talisman, forward Asamoah Gyan, prepared to take the golden opportunity to score a goal with the final kick of the game and send his country to the World Cup semi-finals. Fans all over the stadium waited in anticipation as the team that represented the hopes of the whole African continent stood at the cusp of reaching the semi-finals.

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However, the mood would change very soon. As Gyan’s thumping penalty kick hit the crossbar and went out of play, there was a groan from the crowd. Suarez, who seemed devastated a moment earlier, histrionically ran around the sidelines, celebrating unapologetically as the dejected Ghanaian players fell to the ground. The game would now go to penalties. And as fate would have it, Ghana missed two penalties, letting Uruguay march into the semis and vindicating Suarez’s decision to sacrifice himself to give his team a chance.

Why was this quarter-final such a big deal for Ghana?

Playing the quarter final in a World Cup is a big deal. But in 2010, it was especially meaningful for Ghana. This was the first World Cup being hosted in the African continent. Football is by far the biggest sport in Africa with passionate fans and incredibly talented players. However, African nations have never been considered to be in the footballing elite on the world stage.

The best African players will often find themselves in European leagues at a young age with many going on to represent European nations instead of their place of origin. Case in point, Patrick Vieira, one of France’s greatest ever midfielders, was born in Dakar, Senegal. He would later say that the reason he chose to play for France over Senegal was that “he was never asked to represent the country at youth level.”

But African nations not recognising talent is only half the picture. There are extensive scouting networks all over Africa that create a pipeline for top African prospects to reach Europe at an early age where they can naturalise as citizens if they wish to do so. The money, stability, and stature of European teams is very alluring to these young players who, if they are good enough, are assured of far more glitz and glamour playing for European nations.

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Then there is also the history of European colonialism in Africa. Scouting networks often replicate old colonial ties.
Paul Doyle wrote in The Guardian, “There is the talent drain that affects most sectors of most African societies – emigration from sub-Saharan Africa has enriched destination countries and depleted the source…Lots of talent remains in Africa, of course. But when it comes to football, governments and federations tend to have less money for infrastructure than many European, Asian and American counterparts.”

The economics of world football puts African teams in structural disadvantages when it comes to competing with the cream of the sport.Amidst all this, Ghana of the 2000s emerged as one of the strongest teams from the African continent, with the potential to genuinely compete at the top level.

Ghana’s “golden generation”

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In the 2001 Fifa World Youth Championship, the Ghanaian under-20 team surprised the world, beating France and Brazil enroute to the finals where they lost to hosts Argentina. That team produced players like Derek Boateng, Michael Essien, John Mensah, Sulley Muntari, and John Paintsil, who would become staple fixtures in the Ghanaian team. Along with a continued influx of talent,  such as striker Asamoah Gyan (all time leading scorer for Ghana with 51 goals) and midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng (who could have easily represented Germany like his brother Jerome), the Black Stars were an up and coming team, playing in the World Cup for the first time in 2006.

But everyone knew that it was the 2010 World Cup that was the ultimate goal. Ghana would undoubtedly receive tremendous support in their home continent and 2010 would come at a perfect time for the team: by then, most of their important players were at their prime with enough experience to handle the pressure of big games while still being physically at their peak. The stage was set for them to make a deep run in the tournament.

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Early in the tournament, they showed glimpses of the talent they possessed, playing fantastic football at times, while also working extremely hard when things were not as free flowing. This was a physically dominant team with smart and skilful players, and the heart to not shy away from any challenge. In the group stages, they beat Serbia 1-0, drew to ten-man Australia 0-0 in a game they should have won, and to Germany 0-1 on the back of some Mesut Özil magic. This was enough for them to get out of the group at a respectable second place.

They then waltzed past a strong US team in the round of 16 to set up a clash with Uruguay. The fairy tale was truly on. Ghana was the best African team in the first African World Cup, and already, it had equalled the best ever World Cup performance by an African nation (Senegal also made it to the quarters of the 2002 World Cup). One more win and the Ghnaians would find their names etched in the annals of footballing history.

As fate would have it, they did find a way into footballing history. Just not in the way they would have wanted. This would be the last hurrah for this generation of Ghanaian players. Some retired, others deteriorated quickly. For a generation of players that showed so much promise, it was a bitter end.

Luis Suarez: becoming a supervillain

As Ghana’s elation turned into agony, Suarez’s emotions traversed the opposite path. He thad rudged off the field visibly heartbroken after receiving the red card. While he had saved a certain goal, Ghana still had a penalty to take. Uruguay stared at an exit from a tournament where they themselves were somewhat of a revelation.

After winning two early World Cups, Uruguay have always been at the fringes of the footballing elite. Often boasting of talented players, they just had not been able to string together a team that could compete for the top prize. The 2010 World Cup would be Uruguay’s best performance in years, with skipper Diego Forlán leading the way.

Qualifying from a tough group that included previous edition’s finalists France and a combative Mexico, they had put in convincing performances to reach this stage. The win over Ghana made this Uruguay’s best performance since 1954; however, at a cost to them and their star player.

With Gyan’s penalty miss and Ghana’s subsequent meltdown, Luis Suarez’s handball became the talking point in all of Africa and the rest of the world. He was called a cheat by some while others simply called him the devil incarnate. Suarez’s demeanour did not help his case. Undeterred by the criticism and the hate he would receive, Suarez celebrated wildly as Uruguay would make it to the semifinals of the World Cup. To this date, he remains unapologetic.

“I don’t say I apologise about that because I take the handball but the Ghana player missed the penalty, not me,” said Suarez, speaking in broken English to the media yesterday.

Put that way, he does seem right. He made a split-second decision and was punished for it the harshest way possible. It was not his fault that Ghana could not make the most of the situation. However, football seldom works that way. National loyalties and jingoism will seldom allow fans to assess a situation objectively.

Further, Suarez is notoriously unlikeable, having dealt with various controversies over his footballing career. He has bitten (yes, bitten) players thrice that we know off, being famously sent home from the 2014 World Cup with a nine match suspension for leaving tooth marks on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. He has also been accused of being racist more than once, notably by French left-back Patrice Evra.

Suarez has moulded his footballing personality around being this pesky but extremely effective striker, loved by his team’s fans but hated by everyone else. The 2010 Uruguay team was a memorable team with some great players. Unfortunately most people remember one player in particular, and not for the best of reasons.

Looking forward at today’s game

For Ghana, 2010 ended in tragedy. But 2022 gives them a chance at revenge and redemption.
Unlike fans, the players seem more cautious about invoking 2010 too much. Captain Andre Ayew, the only remaining member from the 2010 squad, said in an interview to GNA Sports, “It’s not a matter of revenge, it is just a matter of us getting into the next stage.”

First published on: 02-12-2022 at 14:58 IST
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