Seeing red on Luis Suarez handball, 12 years on — ‘The whole of Ghana hates him and we want revenge’
On a cold July night at Joburg's Soccer City in 2010, Luis Suarez both broke African hearts and enraged a continent with a blatant handball and his antics afterwards. Now, 12 years on the sides are set to meet again and there is talk of revenge.
There was chaos. There was mayhem. Soccer City, that hulking bowl on the edge of Soweto, was reverberating to the sound of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas, blaring like never before.
And there was confusion. People were losing their heads, caught up in the excitement as Luis Suarez trudged off the pitch, pulling his shirt over his face, trying to hide his devastation after being sent off for handling Dominic Adiyiah’s header on the goalline in the final seconds of a World Cup quarterfinal.
“I thought we had won,” says former Ghana midfielder Ibrahim Ayew, casting his mind back to the fateful, crazy night of 2 July, 2010.
“I was a substitute, warming up behind that goal, and I ran onto the pitch to celebrate because I was sure the ball had crossed the line. I thought we had done it, the first African team ever to reach the semi-final of the World Cup.”
That same certainty was felt in the stands and indeed back in Ghana, where a nation exploded in joy. “I was watching with a group of students at the university in Accra,” says Ghanaian sports reporter George Addo Jr. “Everyone was celebrating. Everyone was jubilating.”
Back at Soccer City, Ghana defender Hans Sarpei asked referee Olegario Benquerenca if he had awarded the goal. Benquerenca shook his head and pointed to the penalty spot. Gradually the melee in the Uruguay goalmouth dispersed and the realisation dawned — across the stadium, across Africa — that Ghana were not quite there yet.
After 120 minutes of tension, it had come down to one kick. One penalty to send the “Black Stars” of Ghana through to the semi-final and keep alive the dream of World Cup glory for Africa. What pressure.
“We weren’t just playing for Ghana. We were playing for Africa,” Ibrahim Ayew tells The Athletic. “We could feel the whole of Africa behind us. We could feel it on our shoulders.”
None more so than Asamoah Gyan, who was entrusted with that vital penalty kick. He had scored high-pressure penalties against Serbia and Australia earlier in the tournament, but this was another level entirely.
“We all believed in Asamoah and he believed in himself,” Ayew says. “Stephen Appiah handed him the ball and said, ‘Go and score. Make the whole of Africa proud.’”
On Benquerenca’s whistle, Gyan stepped forward, struck the ball firmly … and watched in dismay as it bounced off the crossbar. A second later, the final whistle blew. Gyan held his head in his hands, incredulous.
Kwadwo Asamoah fell to his knees and Kevin-Prince Boateng lay prone. In Accra, as in Soccer City, the vuvuzelas fell silent as people stood in disbelief.
And then the TV cameras panned to the touchline, where Suarez, his mood transformed, was celebrating wildly. There was still a penalty shootout to follow — and he would play no part in it, having been sent off — but it was as if the Uruguay forward and everyone else knew Ghana’s chance had gone.
The old script had been ripped up, a new one hastily written and set in stone. Gyan, to his credit, recovered to score in the shootout that followed, but John Mensah and Adiyiah had their kicks saved by Fernando Muslera before Sebastian Abreu clinched Uruguay’s victory with a Panenka penalty.
‘Africa hates him’
Suarez did not exactly hold back with his celebrations, more than happy to play the bad guy as Ghana and Africa were plunged into despair.
“The whole of Ghana hates him and the whole of Africa hates him,” Ibrahim Ayew says.
Hate? Even now? Twelve years on? “Oh yes,” he says, just about managing to raise a chuckle. “We hate him. And we want revenge.”
As the World Cup draw unfolded in April, a certain sense of destiny took hold. As one team after another in pot four was pulled out and the various geographical constraints became clearer, the chances of Ghana joining Uruguay in Group H grew and grew.
The Athletic’s Carl Anka, who is of Ghanaian heritage, was among many who felt it was inevitable. And then, as the veteran coach Bora Milutinovic pulled another ball out of a bowl in a conference hall in Doha, it was confirmed.
Ghana vs Uruguay
My head has fallen off.
— Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) April 1, 2022
Social media in Ghana was abuzz with talk of revenge. The Black Stars were in a difficult group along with Portugal and South Korea, as well as Uruguay, but nobody was talking about facing Cristiano Ronaldo or Son Heung-min. It was all about Suarez.
That goes for football administrators too. “We believe it will be revenge time,” said Ghana Football Association president Kurt Okraku after the draw. “It is important that we all set the record straight.”
Even statesmen embraced the talk of payback. “We’ve had to wait for 12 years to get revenge against Uruguay — and we assure them that this time the hand of Suarez will not save them against the Black Stars of Ghana,” said the country’s president Nana Akufo-Addo. “They are going down!”
His predecessor John Mahama struck a similar note. “Even if you don’t beat anybody, just beat Uruguay for me,” the former president said. “And let’s pay Suarez back for what he did to us.”
Speaking before the tournament, Ibrahim Ayew proposed a scenario where, after the first two rounds of games in Group H, it would all come down to Ghana against Uruguay in round three, with everything on the line.
That has come to pass after Ghana beat South Korea 3-2 on Monday afternoon, and Uruguay lost 2-0 to Portugal later in the evening, with Suarez making little impact as a second-half substitute. For Ghana, it is an opportunity to progress to the knockout stage and send Suarez and Uruguay home. But can they hold their nerve this time to finish the job?
‘Not looking back’ — Ayew
Education City Stadium, Doha, Monday early evening. Ghana have just beaten South Korea 3-2 in one of the most enthralling, exhilarating games of the tournament so far. Their players are still on a high on their way out of the stadium, excitedly sharing their thoughts with journalists in the post-match mixed zone.
Ibrahim Ayew’s younger brother Andre, the only member of Ghana’s 2010 side still in the squad for this year’s tournament, speaks emotionally about the support he and his teammates felt from the crowd. “I want to thank them a lot, he says. “They came in their numbers and they were great. We want to thank them for their support, for their love, for their prayers. Insha’Allah, on Friday we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope we will be through to the next stage.
“We have a difficult game coming, a big one, but we gave ourselves the chance to dream.”
It is put to the former Swansea City and West Ham United forward, who now plays for Qatari club Al Sadd, that he has been in this situation before, and that the whole world remembers what happened last time they met Uruguay in a do-or-die match.
“Well, I’m the only one who was in the squad when that happened,” he says, “so the others don’t really know how we felt. Everyone felt bad, but for me, I just want to get into the next stage, so it’s not (revenge) for me, no.
“If it was revenge or not, we will go with the same determination and the same desire to win because we want to get into the next stage, so it’s not our revenge. I don’t think so. For me, it’s football. We took a decision. There’s nothing to speak about it. We’re just going to see how we’re going to play versus them and find ways to beat them.”
Can you take us back to 2010 and what that moment was like? “Where I am now, I’m not looking back,” he says. “Sorry. I’m just looking at what’s coming on Friday. I don’t want to talk about the past.”
Gideon Mensah says similar. The Auxerre full-back knows others in Ghana will see Friday’s match differently — “for the country and for some individuals” — but he adds, “With the players, it’s just like any other game where we need to go out and win the three points, so it doesn’t matter if it’s revenge or it doesn’t matter if Suarez is still there. We still have to have three points and then move on to the next game.”
Could Ghana’s players use the memories of 2010 as motivation? Pin a photo of Suarez on the dressing room wall perhaps…?
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
Did what he had to do
Suarez could never understand the furore. He was merely doing his job. Defending that free kick in the final seconds of a World Cup, he dropped back to the goalline because instinct told him to do so. When Appiah shot goalwards, Suarez was there to hack the ball away. When Adiyiah followed up with a header, the Uruguay forward instinctively blocked it on the line with his hand.
He hoped that, with so many players in the six-yard area, he might get away with it. When he saw the referee had spotted it, his first thought was to try to pin it on his team-mate Jorge Fucile, who was already suspended from the semi-final. “I had to try,” Suarez said in his autobiography Crossing the Line. “The referee wasn’t falling for it. Out came the red card.
“I walked off the pitch devastated. I was crying and the only thing going through my head at that point was, ‘We’re going out of the World Cup, we’re going out of the World Cup …’ I had been sent off and we were going home. Gyan was going to take the penalty and (…) I was convinced he wasn’t going to miss. We had no chance.
“And then I saw the ball go over the bar. He had missed. And one word came out of my mouth: ‘Gol!’ The feeling, the sense of release, was the same as if we had scored. Unbelievable. I’ll never forget it. That was when I realised what I’d done. That was when I realised the sending-off had been worth it. I had stopped a goal, they had missed the penalty and we were still alive.”
To put it mildly, Suarez has never been afraid of pushing the boundaries to try to win a game. But this was different. He hadn’t dived to win a penalty. He hadn’t bitten an opponent when he thought the referee wasn’t watching.
He racially abused an opponent for the purposes of provocation. He had handled a goalbound shot and, while he had held the slightest hope of getting away with it, he had been punished with a red card, a penalty for the opposition and, as it transpired after Uruguay prevailed on penalties, a suspension for the semi-final.
“Gyan is the one who missed the penalty,” he said. “But everyone said that I had done something terrible. Or that I had been selfish. But I had stopped a goal with my hand because I had no choice.
“In fact, it wasn’t even a case of making a choice; it was a reaction. Thanks to the handball, Uruguay were in the semi-finals. More than having cheated, I felt as if I had made a sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t selfish. It was giving everything for my country and for my team. That’s the way they saw it in Uruguay.”
Sebastian Abreu played 70 matches for Uruguay and came off the bench against Ghana, scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout. He doesn’t see too much to connect the 2010 fixture and the 2022 rematch. “I know that (revenge) sounds appealing, but the two games will have been played under different contexts,” he says.
Diego Forlan, who scored Uruguay’s equaliser that night before converting a penalty in the shootout, is also unsurprisingly keen to play down the historic element.
“It’s not a revenge match for us,” the former Manchester United forward tells The Athletic. “If Ghana see it that way, that’s on them. They’ll use it for motivation so that they can say, ‘This is our chance for revenge against Uruguay.’ That’s valid.”
Forlan is confused by the positioning of Suarez as the villain of the piece.
“I still don’t get that, that double standard that people around the world latch onto,” says Forlan. “Luis has been jeered because of that. Are there not rules? The rules say that if you use your hand to handle the ball inside the box it’s a penalty.
“And what happened? It was a penalty and (Suarez) was sent off. What was the result? A penalty for Ghana and they missed it. Done. End of story. Who was penalised? We were because Luis couldn’t play in the next match. So how is he the villain? Really? The rules were applied and he was penalised. Nothing else happened!
“And there’s something else,” Abreu said. “If Ghana converts the penalty, (Suarez) wouldn’t be the villain. They didn’t convert. Had Ghana converted that penalty, this wouldn’t be a story.
“Then we went to a shootout and they missed two penalties. We missed one. There were three additional factors at play. It’s unfair for all of this to have been lumped on Luis.”
Back in Uruguay, Suarez was lionised. In his autobiography, the forward recalls with some delight that at their homecoming parade in Montevideo, having been beaten in the semi-finals by the Netherlands, the fans were singing, “No es la mano de Dios, es la mano de Suarez. La puta madre que le parto!” (“It’s not the hand of God, it’s the hand of Suarez. (Long live) the f***ing mother who gave birth to him.”)
Suarez has just one regret about the incident. When he watched it back in the cold light of day, as his teammates looked forward to the semi-final, he saw the ball had been closer than he had realised at the time. He hadn’t been at full stretch when he swatted it away. Maybe he could have headed it instead. “Why did I do that?” he said. “Why did I handle it?”
It came down to just one thing. “I had one-thousandth of a second to react and I was exhausted from 120 minutes of football,” he said.
It was instinct. Pure professional instinct.
Ibrahim Ayew says nobody in the Ghana dressing room spoke for a long time afterwards. “We were so sorry, especially for Asamoah Gyan,” says the midfielder, who now plays for Bruno’s Magpies in the Gibraltar National League.
“He felt he had disappointed the whole of Africa. He was so disappointed in himself. We told him it was not his fault, but he still feels that disappointment, even now.”
They felt anger too. Not towards Gyan, but towards the referee — “He could just have awarded the goal” — and certainly towards Suarez for the frenzied, provocative nature of his celebrations.
“You could see him running out of the tunnel to celebrate after the (Gyan) penalty and we felt that,” Ibrahim Ayew says. “We were angry. But no one came out to try to approach or attack him. It wasn’t like that.”
Ultimately, the anger towards Suarez was about more than just the act. It was about the context.
“So far as the laws of football are concerned, Luis Suarez was punished,” sports reporter Addo says. “But the feeling among Ghanaians was — and is — that it should have been a goal and that we were cheated.
“Ghana was crying, Africa was crying and Luis Suarez was celebrating. That’s what people found very hard to take. The sight of him celebrating, after Asamoah Gyan’s penalty, filled a lot of people with rage.”
Addo says feelings towards Suarez would have softened over time had he shown the Ghana players more sympathy, but instead the former Liverpool and Barcelona forward seems to have invited opprobrium by suggesting Gyan and the Ghana players only had themselves to blame for not winning the game.
“Every Ghanaian has something towards Suarez, even if it’s not hatred,” Addo says. “We all felt something after that. Even when he was playing for Liverpool or Barcelona, people didn’t want to see him smiling. Any time he appears on the TV screen, there will be people saying, ‘That guy. THAT GUY.’ In Ghana everyone will be talking about revenge. We can expect wild scenes if Ghana win.”
Ibrahim Ayew agrees. He is 34 now, his international career long over, and he is determined to see his brothers Andre and Jordan exact revenge on Friday. But even sending Uruguay home might not be enough.
“It was the World Cup quarter-final,” he says. “If that ball had gone in — if Suarez didn’t do what he did — we would have been the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-final. Can you imagine that? And we were playing for all of Africa. Not just Africa but for people in the Caribbean, people all over the world, even in Europe. It was the first World Cup ever to be held in Africa. Maybe there won’t be another one. For an African team to be in the semi-final, it would have been history.
“One thing about our national team is this: when you wear the colours of Ghana, a spirit goes into you. You carry so much on your shoulders, but you are fearless. I look back at the way my team-mates played that night, with so much pressure, and they were fearless, all of them. I feel we deserved to win. I feel we had won. But then all of a sudden that happened.”
Earlier he said the whole of Ghana hates Suarez. “Look I wouldn’t use the word hate,” he says. “I don’t hate him. I have come to understand that if I was in that position, I would have done the same thing. I do get it.
“But it still hurts. You try to put it in the past, you try to bury it, but it’s part of you. It’s like a scar. And until we get our revenge and until we get what we want, it never goes away.” DM
Additional reporting: Adam Leventhal and Felipe Cardenas
This article originally appeared in The Athletic.