World Cup: Ghana-Uruguay grudge match shows attraction of the villain

Those of us who were in the stands in Johannesburg that winter’s evening in 2010 can still see the moment before us.

It’s the last minute of extra time in the World Cup quarter-final. A Ghanaian header is flying towards Uruguay’s goal, seemingly destined to be the winning strike that will for the first time put an African team in the last four of a World Cup.

But then Uruguay’s brilliant young forward Luis Suárez throws up his hands and blocks it on the goalline. The referee sends him off and awards Ghana a penalty.

Their captain, Stephen Appiah, hands the ball to Asamoah Gyan, saying: “Make the whole of Africa proud.” That had also been Nelson Mandela’s prematch message to Ghana’s Black Stars: “We join everybody on the continent and in the diaspora in wishing you success.”

But Gyan’s penalty pings off the crossbar, and Suarez erupts with joy on the touchline. Uruguay win the ensuing penalty shootout.

On Friday the two nations meet again at a World Cup, this time to contest a place in the second round. Ghana probably need only a draw, whereas Uruguay must win, and then hope South Korea don’t beat Portugal in the other group game.

Suarez, now 35, may play, although he has featured to little effect in Uruguay’s first two matches. Spectators will have 2010 in their heads. World Cups are all about memory: moments from long-gone games hang over today’s fields like a miasma. Suarez’s handball lives on because it encapsulates so much in both Uruguayan and African football history.

In World Cups as in plays, the most compelling character is often the villain. For most fans, Suarez hangs in the tournament’s all-time rogues’ gallery alongside West German keeper Toni Schumacher, whose unpenalised karate kick in 1982 hospitalised Frenchman Patrick Battiston, and Diego Maradona, whose “Hand of God” goal in 1986 helped Argentina beat England. Suarez appears twice in the gallery: in 2014 he took a bite out of the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.

But to Uruguayans, his handball was heroic. Singing crowds welcomed him home to Montevideo in 2010, and the country’s great writer Eduardo Galeano praised his “act of patriotic insanity”: “He was expelled but his country wasn’t.” Suarez himself boasted: “I made the best save of the tournament.”

In the last minute of the match against Ghana in 2010, Luis Suárez uses his hand to stop a certain goal © Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

In a country of 3.5mn people that only impinges on international consciousness during World Cups, players are expected to display an unironic willingness to sacrifice for the shirt.

Uruguayans feel they can only beat bigger nations by being harder and craftier. In their view, Suarez did the right thing. Indeed, his teammate Jorge Fucile tried to do it too, but his outstretched arm missed the Ghanaian header.

For Africans, the moment encapsulated their eternal disappointment in World Cups. After Cameroon reached the quarter-finals in 1990, it became a cliché to predict that one day an African team would lift the trophy, but with hindsight that tournament proved the end of the continent’s rise, not the start. Senegal’s victory over Ecuador on Monday was the first time Africans had beaten South Americans in the tournament since 1990.

Ghana may well defeat an ageing Uruguayan side that serves as something of a ragged tribute act to 2010. Three Uruguayans who started in Johannesburg — Edinson Cavani and keeper Fernando Muslera besides Suarez — are in the squad.

But Ghana’s defence looks too leaky to reach that still elusive semi-final. Even in their 3-2 victory over South Korea, 15 Korean crosses from open play found a teammate, the highest for any team at a World Cup since statistics became available in 1966, according to data provider Opta. Ghana are lucky to have conceded only five goals in two games.

Black Stars fans hope their thrilling forwards will at least exact revenge on Uruguay. Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, has warned: “This time the hand of Suárez will not save them.”

But footballers don’t think like fans. Their obsession is today’s performance. Far from wanting to avenge the past, they often have an uneasy relationship with their predecessors, who tend to envy their salaries and publicly criticise their performances.

Only one member of Ghana’s squad in Qatar, André Ayew, played at the 2010 World Cup, and he missed the game in Johannesburg through suspension. He dismisses talk of revenge, saying, according to The Athletic website: “I just want to get into the next stage.”

Still, footballers only play the walk-on parts at World Cups. It’s fans who give the show its meaning.

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