The World Cup is, arguably, the biggest party to hit the globe. Every four years – four and a half if your worldwide organisation sells its soul to an oil state – fans from around the world come together in a range of cities in the host country to watch global superstars, drink Budweiser, and make memories that will last them a lifetime (for examples of this, check out my 2018 fan-driven series, 32 Sides to Every Story). While the World Cup is, by and large, one big fun party, there are still occasions where the football comes first, and with it, the rivalries that develop.
Some footballing rivalries have been tweaked over many decades. Think Brazil and Argentina, two footballing giants who are always in the conversation of teams that may win the whole thing. Then you have those rivalries that are based more on political upheaval. England and Germany. England and Argentina. England and, well, basically everyone. Sure, there are definitely elements of these rivalries that are exacerbated by the football, but at their core they are fan-lead that stem from wars and conflicts of old.
The focus of this article is a newly found rivalry, one that is based purely on the football, and one that will rear its head in Qatar in a matter of weeks. This is the fixture between two-time World champions, Uruguay, and plucky African outfit Ghana, the darlings of the 2010 World Cup, the tournament that sparked this intercontinental battle.
These sides were drawn in Group H in Qatar and things could get dicey. The group contains the two aforementioned sides, alongside Euro 2016 victors Portugal, and World Cup stalwarts South Korea. This is one of the most open groups in the upcoming winter tournament. Portugal and Uruguay are favourites to be first and second, but with the ludicrous nature of a Winter World Cup, players are tired and dropping like flies. This bodes to be a tournament of upsets and teams like Ghana and South Korea will be baying for blood.
The bulk of Portugal and Uruguay players play for top European sides competing in continental competitions. They have been playing weekend-midweek games all season. Those playing without the midweek games as regularly may have that extra spring in their step, and this could make for some intriguing results.
Origins of a budding modern rivalry
To look forward to this Uruguay-Ghana match-up, we must first look back. We go back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Cast your mind back to a summer of K’naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag’ and Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’. Put the mosquito-eqsue drone of the Vuvuzela to the forefront in your mind, if you can bare to do so. It is the summer of 2010. Spain are winning the world over with their Tiki-Taka football, England are embarrassing themselves on and off the field, Italy, the reigning champions, are out in the groups, and Africa have a team in the last eight of the FIFA World Cup for the third time in the continents history.
Uruguay stands in their way, and this is an intriguing match-up. The small South American side won the World Cup twice in the 1930s and for the first time since, look like they might have a hope at pushing for the title. They have a young, exciting squad with a few experienced pros mixed in. Diego Forlan, Edison Cavani, and the mercurial Luis Suarez are the forwards for Uruguay, and they’ve negotiated a group with France, Mexico, and South Africa, as well as eliminating South Korea in the Round of 16.
Ghana finished second in their group behind Germany. They won out over Serbia, the country of their manager, Milanovan Rajevac, and Australia. A goal difference of zero was enough to see them progress over Australia. A tense extra-time victory over the USA followed in the next round. Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin-Prince Boateng were the main men for this West African side that summer.
The stage is set
The stage was set. It was July 2nd. It was Soccer City, Johannesburg. This wasn’t a grudge match… yet. This was actually the first time in history that these two sides have played, and they haven’t met since. It was a huge side for both nations, but there wasn’t any malice in the build-up, it was simply two sides who wanted to win. For Uruguay, it was to reclaim some of their former glory; for Ghana, it was a chance to trailblaze where no African side had gone before.
Anthems were sung, hands were shaken and the game was underway. Ghana had the better of the opening half and with seconds to go in the first, Ghana capitalised on a lazy bit of defending from Uruguay. Sulley Muntari unleashed the power of the Jabulani to score from distance. The old boy, Diego Forlan, levelled things up in the second via a free kick, that devilish Jabulani ball causing all kinds of chaos to beat Richard Kingston in the Ghanaian goal. The game goes to extra time and the clock ticks down.
With seconds to go, Ghana were awarded a free kick from wide right. There was always a chance that this could result in a goal, but nobody could have imagined the seismic impact that this would have on the world of football. The cross came in and Ghana attacked it. A game of pinball ensued, with Uruguay defending resolutely, their continuation in this tournament on the line. A John Mensah header beats the keeper but is blocked on the line by Luis Suarez, but something isn’t right. The Ghana players are enraged and within seconds the whistle has been blown and the referee is pulling a red card out of his pocket.
The pivotal moment: Suarez crosses the line
What an unlucky blunder this was. The player was so close to making the most successful clearance off the line in recent memory. This was the thought process when you saw the red card being shown. Then the replays circulated. This was no blunder. This was a callous act of cheating. Suarez purposely flailed his arms, seemingly knowing that the ball was going in. Uruguay would have been out if he hasn’t used his arms. Sure, a penalty likely favours the attacking team, but at least it gives his country a chance. It was an act of sheer bastardry, and it worked perfectly.
Ghana were outraged, but they saw the striker sent off and had the simple task of converting the penalty to seal their place in the final four. Unfortunately for Ghana, and for all those keen on seeing justice done, Asamoah Gyan fired his penalty over the bar. The score remained 0-0, the final minutes played out and the lottery of a penalty shootout was observed. Uruguay won this 4-2, Gyan scoring his penalty this time around, and a hatred was born.
Before we go further, let us just take a moment to realise the magnitude of it being Suarez, a man who was only a few months removed from biting a player while he was playing for Ajax. He wasn’t the only player on the line that day either. Left back Jorge Fucile was not just on the line. He was also trying to prevent a goal, raising his left arm aloft to block the shot. He would have been vilified had it been him who stopped the shot, rather than Suarez, but it is hard to image this fairly innocuous Porto defender being a global hate icon the way Luis Suarez became.
Twelve years ago, a great injustice was done. Or was it? Suarez cheated, but we don’t like in the rugby world where penalty-tries are awarded. The referee followed the rules and sent the player off, he awarded a penalty. Ghana took the penalty, missing it. It happens. Had this been earlier in the game, it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. Had Gyan scored, it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. The situation has been sensationalised because it is Luis Suarez, and because ‘the good guys’ didn’t win; the fairytale was more Brothers Grimm than Disney-Pixar. It wasn’t fair, but then again nor are most things in life. Suarez did a bad thing, but it could be argued that he did what he could to help his nation progress to a World Cup semi-final.
“The Hand of God now belongs to me. Mine is the real Hand of God. I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper, so it was worth it. There was no alternative but for me to do that, and when they missed the penalty I thought, ‘It is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament.’ Now we are in the semi-finals although I was very sad, because no one likes to be sent off.”Luis Suarez showed no contrition for his outright cheating
The teams involved will downplay this in the build-up to the tournament. It’s a new set of players, it was twelve years ago etcetera, etcetera. The fans will remember, however, and it is hard to imagine that the coaches, particularly the coaches of Ghana, won’t be using this to amp up the players going into the game. The 2022 edition of this new-found rivalry may not be as memorable as its 2010 counterpart, but I for one can’t wait to see the tone set by the first tackle of the game.