There are no winners in revenge missions. Sentiment demanded that Ghana should right the wrongs of their 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay and expiate the hurt of Luis Suárez’s last-minute handball on the line. But Uruguay, and Suárez in particular, have no time for such romantic notions of redemption. Ghana were again eliminated after missing a penalty but they had the consolation that, although Suárez set up two, it was South Korea and not Uruguay who went through to the last 16 with Portugal.
Uruguay did not react well. As Ghanaians sat in resigned weariness on the pitch, Uruguay’s players surrounded the idiosyncratic German referee, Daniel Siebert, at the final whistle, furious they hadn’t been awarded at least one of two huge penalty appeals in the second half. The Ghanaian fans, resigned by then to their exit, seemed to enjoy it all immensely. And as José María Giménez raged at Siebert, Suárez wept on the bench.
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This was a game haunted by the memory of events at Soccer City 12 years ago, and specifically by that one moment in the final minute of extra-time. The image was always there, a perverse footballing pietà, flitting in the peripheral vision: Stephen Appiah in the foreground having had the initial blocked effort (which was probably offside, although nobody talks about that), John Mensah and the goalkeeper Fernando Muslera falling together with Andrés Scotti, Dominic Adiyiah stretching having headed the loose ball goalwards, Jorge Fucile with back arched and left fist thrust up having missed his attempt to handle, and Suárez, arms out, leaping to his right to claw the ball away. It is the Pisgah of African football, the moment when it saw the promised land of a World Cup semi-final, but was denied.
Billboards across Accra this week have depicted the incident with the slogan: “REVENGE!: Let’s support the Black Stars.” The fact that Ghanaians still feel the pain of that moment was made clear by the pre-match press conference. Suárez, with a characteristic sense of provocative showmanship, appeared alone and seemed entirely unfazed by a Ghanaian journalist saying that many in his country saw him as “the devil himself” (adding “el diablo”, lest there be any confusion) and wanted to “retire” him. He didn’t regret it, he said. He had been punished. He had been shown a red card and missed the semi-final as a result. It wasn’t his fault Asamoah Gyan had missed the penalty.
Was this an elaborate wind-up? Suárez had played just 81 minutes in the group stage and had been distinctly unimpressive, managing just one shot on goal (off target). But if this was one enormous mind game Uruguay carried it to the extreme, naming Suárez as captain. Was that in the mind of André Ayew, the only Ghana player at Al Janoub to have appeared in the 2010 quarter-final, as he stepped up to take a penalty?
For, of course there was penalty controversy, lots of it. How could there not be? Sergio Rochet, the Uruguay keeper, clearly tripped Mohammed Kudus but initially André Ayew was ruled offside. When VAR proved he had been played fractionally onside by the heel of Mathías Olivera, the penalty award was automatic. His kick, though, was dismal and easily saved.
Then, just before the hour, Darwin Núñez went down under a challenge from Daniel Amartey. Siebert didn’t give it, was told to consult the screen and, unusually, decided not to overturn the decision, signalling he had seen a slight touch on the ball. It was a decision that proved vital for Uruguay’s goal difference; had that been given and converted, they would have gone through. Edinson Cavani had another decent shout in stoppage time by which point news had come through that South Korea had beaten Portugal and the game had become a frenetic slug-fest, all shape gone, just one attack after another.
For Ghana, who held a two-point advantage at kick-off, the moment had been there, but the moment was missed. There was a sense of inevitability to what followed. Few sides are as good as Uruguay at sensing a game’s emotional pulse. As Ghana reeled, Uruguay surged. Mohammed Salisu had already cleared off the line from Núñez when Suárez’s shot was half-blocked by Lawrence Ati-Zigi. The ball was probably spinning in anyway but Giorgian de Arrascaeta nodded over the line from close range.
Six minutes later, he had his second, volleying crisply home after a clever Suárez flick. He may be 35, the belly starting to show beneath the shirt but, though much is taken, much abides: there is magic yet in his brain and his touch, and perhaps particularly when opposition fans get the blood going.
And the fury, so strangely lacking against South Korea, was back. He raged at the officials, needled away at Salisu and put his body in the way to win free-kicks before being withdrawn after 65 minutes. He had beaten them again.
The devil, perhaps, is never truly done but, this time, it was not quite enough. A shot of him sobbing on the big screen drew delighted jeers. Ghana had gone out – but at least they had taken the devil with them.