The soccer World Cup in South Africa in 2010 was the first time in living memory an African country was tasked to host an event that commanded the unchallenged attention of about half of the world’s population.
The showpiece in 2010 was South Africa’s to host but it was Africa’s to boast of. It was right after winning the bid in 2004 that South Africa’s organizing committee chairman Danny Jordaan called it “Africa’s World Cup”.
Never mind that there was literally going to be a 2010 World Cup in Africa anyway seeing that all of the bids came from African countries due to FIFA’s continent rotation policy. But the continent was going to be happy for the eventual hosts because this was Africa – peoples brought together by the commonality of their unique struggles and belonging to the one place happily overlooked by the rest of the world.
It is always better to look at the villainy pulled by Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez on the night of July 2 against the backdrop and weight of the hopes of the entire African continent. Ghana‘s Black Stars had taken to the field with Nelson Mandela’s blessings and the prayers of Sudanese, Cape Verdians and Malagasies.
Ghana had gotten to the quarter-finals stage after beating the United States 2-1 in a game that traveled beyond regulation time into the extra-time. It was the second time Ghana had beaten the Americans at a World Cup, the first being four years before in Germany.
At the quarter-finals, Ghana stood as the sole African country remaining in the tournament after South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon had bowed out in the stages before.
The quarters at the World Cup seem like a hex for Africa. No African country has ever played beyond the stage with Senegal and Cameroon the only other countries before Ghana to have achieved the feat.
This meant that in purely soccer terms, Ghana stood on the precipice of history. They could become the first African country to play at the semi-finals stage if they beat Uruguay.
Overcoming an African soccer hex at Africa’s first and only World Cup proved too much for Ghanaians. But not for a lack of trying.
As perhaps Africans suspected prior to the game, the Black Stars of Ghana proved throughout the match they were not afraid of a Uruguayan team that was itself not touted for much but included some world-famous players.
Suarez was, however, not one of the famous names in the Uruguayan side that played in South Africa. But he was determined to write his name in perpetual infamy, literally by his own hand.
After regulation time of 90 minutes, the game ended 1-1. In the extra-time of 30 minutes that followed, Ghana was clearly the side that looked like winning, with the Africans tapping into a second wind from God knows where.
And then what some have called the most unfair sporting moment happened. In the dying minutes of the game.
A cross had been played by Ghana’s John Paintsil from a free-kick at the edge of Uruguay’s box. A goalmouth melee ensued but Ghana player Dominic Adiyiah rose above the mess and nodded the ball with his head into the poorly-guarded Uruguayan goal.
History was inches away as breaths held still from Zimbabwe to Algeria. Eyes did not flicker, hungrily desirous of the moment Ghana broke the hex.
That thunderous “goal” had to be shouted. It would be conceived in the lungs of nearly a billion or more and would come out mouths that would make other noises all night in celebration.
But Suarez, like an agile party pooper, threw his hand and palmed the ball away after Adiyiah’s header had beaten the helpless Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
All that which was anticipated by Ghana’s supporters vanished; that “goal” permanently arrested in their throats.
Everyone saw Suarez’s infringement, including the referee who immediately gave the Uruguay forward a red card and awarded a penalty to Ghana. But Suarez wept and protested his innocence as if our eyes had fooled us.
He was supposed to be off the pitch but that took a while. It was not clear whether Suarez’s overt display of misery was because he felt Uruguay had reached the end of the road or that he had let his team down.
Suarez was finally helped off the pitch by the rest of his teammates. He was supposed to go to the team’s locker room but he did not, and he stood at the entrance of the tunnel waiting to confirm if Ghana would score from the resulting penalty kick of his handball.
Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, a scorer of two previous penalties in the tournament, did not score that one which would have taken his country to the semi-finals of the World Cup. As soon as Gyan’s kick came off the crossbar, the referee whistled for the end of the game.
Suarez, at the tunnel where he had been watching, jumped for joy and he looked nothing like the broken man who had begged the referee minutes before.
He had given his team another chance with what he did – a penalty shootout, with a rustled Ghana team that was in shock after having come so close yet had victory postponed, if not snatched away, by bad luck and Luis Suarez.
A Uruguay team, feeling the blessing of the soccer gods, went on to win the penalty shootout. Ghana and Africa were beaten in body and in spirit.
Suarez has since gone on to have an amazing soccer career, bad karma be damned. The only other problems he has had concerning soccer were those times he bit opponents and that time he was accused of racist remarks made against another player.
Suarez has also called his handball infringement against Ghana “the new hand of God”, mimicking another illustrious South American Diego Maradona who scored with his hand against England at the World Cup in 1986.
But Ghana and much of Africa do not seem like they have moved on from that night. Ten years after the incident, a good many of us are still replaying the greatest unfairness on a soccer pitch like broken records.