The match ended in tears. For both Uruguay and Ghana. In the stands, on the field, tears gushed forth like a torrent onto the sands of Al Janoub. As the game ended, with Uruguay winning 2-0, but knocked out of the knockouts by South Korea beating Portugal, Luis Suarez sobbed inconsolably in the dugout. When the cameras zoomed inexorably onto his face, he pulled his tear-drenched shirt over it. He glanced sideways, some of his teammates were barging into the referee and his crew of assistants, for a corner that could have been, a penalty that could have been too. But those were just passing distractions from the man who was always going to be the protagonist of the match, Suarez.
Just 30 minutes before the game ended, Suarez was an album of joy, chatting with his teammates in the dugout, playing around with the support staff, content after 64 minutes of playing his best football of this World Cup. The Ghana game was perhaps the switch that flicked the best out of Suarez. Slow and sloppy, invisible and inert until this game, he rediscovered his vintage, perhaps the 2010 vintage. He was a transformed man, sliding into tackles, chasing the ball wildly, shoving and shovelling past defenders. There was a gorgeous nutmeg near the byline. The marker Inaki Williams was just a couple of yards away, but he embarrassed him with the cheekiest of nutmegs.
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But before you come to Suarez, you should pause for Andrew Ayew. When he lined up for the penalty, he had the whole weight of Ghana’s footballing history on his left foot. He hopped, stopped and swished at the ball. The ball tipped off the edge of his boot and rolled meekly into the safe palms of Uruguayan goalkeeper Sergio Rocher. Ayew stood thunderstruck.
He hung his head in shame and plunged into the ground in slow motion. Ghana’s first shot at liberation ended in tears. And of all the people Ayew, one of the few remaining members of the 2010 ‘Hand of the Devil” fixture, watching all the drama unfold from the dugout as an unused substitute. He, like Asamoah Gyan, his idol who missed the spot kick from Suarez’s handball, would have a lifetime to regret the slip-up.
Ghana froze — in the silence among the Ghanian fans, you could hear the wilt of a thousand hearts. The vocal supporters, in a riot of colour, singing and dancing until that moment, stood numbed. The players wilted, the wandered aimlessly. Until this moment, Suraez was camping in their heads. But from this moment, he was to torment them on the field too. Of all the cruel scripts, this was the one Ghanians feared the worst. To be spooked by Suarez. To be spooked forever by Suarez. For generations, or perhaps for an eternity.
Post the spilled penalty, they unravelled. Seizing the moment of Ghanian daze, the bleach-haired Giorgian de Arrascaeta scored twice in the space of six minutes. Both goals originated from outrageously clumsy defending (was it even defending?). The ball from deep, pierced through two defenders, each presuming that the other would clear the ball. Suarez revved up through the left, bent in sharply and unpacked a stinging shot on goal.
The saving grace was that Suarez did not score, instead goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi blocked it. But Arrascaeta pounced onto the rebound and nudged the ball into the net with the flap of his head. Six minutes later, Suarez-Arrascaeta combined again. Suarez floated the ball to Arrascaeta, a glorious lob. The latter swung the volley home. It was a goal of pure technical perfection, from Suarez’s lob, sweet and sumptuous, designed in an artist’s palette. The execution befitted the assist. As the ball dropped, so did the body of Arrascaeta, and just before it kissed the ground, he twisted his body and struck it on the full. The ball first swung away before it changed its direction and whistled past Ati-Zigi, unable to judge the path of the ball.
To aggravate their pain and agony, Suarez would celebrate wildly beside the touchline. After the second goal, he veered towards the Ghanian section of fans and clapped, flicked thumbs up and gesticulated to boo him louder.
At the stroke of the 64th minute, Suarez was taken off, to resounding applause from the Uruguayan enclosure and muffled silence from the Ghanian side. But even in his absence Suarez still loomed on the pitch, as though the Ghanian players were seeing him everywhere. They seemed to be running around a maze without an exit.
The mood at the start was contrasting. A screech of boos greeted Luis Suarez onto the ground. Ever the pantomime villain he is, he bared his teeth and smiled. When the boos reached a crescendo, he blew kisses their way, fuelling more angst and whipping up more memories of the heartbreaking night in Johannesburg. Ghanians never forgave him for what Suarez then claimed was the “new hand of God moment” or as Ghanian journalist put it the other day, the “Hand of Devil”.
Even if they had forgiven him, Suarez made sure that he whipped up the old, bitter memories. He started the match, wore the captain’s armband and took the first touch of the ball. He might be in the autumnal fade of his career, but the impishness, the pantomime-ness has remained intact.
In the end, the prayers of the Ghanians were answered. They saw Suarez cry, but not in the way they had prayed or wished for. They were crying too. Had Ghana won or drawn the game, they would have qualified to the last 16. But perhaps, in the similitude of their fate, Ghana could have found peace with Suarez and Uruguay. Or granted him forgiveness at last.