In case Ghanaian memories were fading, Uruguay granted them an audience with a ghost. Luis Suárez didn’t have to be the player made available to the media before the game, but he came on, 15 minutes before his coach Diego Alonso, and held the pitch alone. It was less a red rag for a bull than an open invitation to charge him, but the unspoken message was clear: I’m still here; I’m still inside your heads.
He has resided in enough of them since the startling and dreamlike sequence in Johannesburg 12 years ago when his handball at the end of extra time broke a continent’s heart. The story is well-tested: Dominic Adiyiah’s header would have sent Ghana into the semi-finals, making them the first African team to go that far, had Suárez not saved it on the line and taken a red card.
Suárez was distraught, but there was always the remote possibility that Asamoah Gyan would falter on the spot and squander his gift. This is what happened; a desperate Suárez, who was looking through his shirt from the tunnel mouth, stormed off in a fisticuffs celebration and Uruguay went through in the ensuing shootout.
Related: My Favorite Match: Uruguay v Ghana, 2010 World Cup Quarter Finals | John Brewin
If Ghana win when they finally renew their acquaintances in the flesh on Friday, they will reach the last 16 and beat Uruguay. The same will likely be true if they draw, and as much as those around the camp try to downplay any desire for revenge, the symbolism would be huge. Progress is one thing, but it also becomes personal: at 36, Suárez’s last match in Qatar 2022 will surely be his swan song at the World Cup.
The reporter who told Suárez that many in Ghana see him as “the devil himself,” raising laughs in a particularly well-populated auditorium, and would appreciate a chance to pull him didn’t exaggerate too much. Offering an opportunity to apologize for his sleight of hand, Suárez politely declined and stressed that Gyan had ample opportunity to ensure the only regrets were his.
“I didn’t apologize because I did handball, but the Ghanaian player missed the penalty, not me,” he said. “Maybe I’d apologize if I tackled and injured a player but in this situation I got the red card, the referee gave a penalty and it’s not my fault because I didn’t miss the penalty. The player who missed said he would do the same. It’s not my responsibility to carry out the penalty.”
Suárez was right: it wasn’t as if, as the vuzuzelas trumpeted disapprovingly around a feverish Soccer City, he had tampered with the rules and left Ghana with no right to reply. His instinctive action should have only delayed the piece of Black Stars history by a minute or so. There were certainly less excusable flashpoints in his career than he did and he hinted at one, the bite of Giorgio Chiellini four years later when he insisted on Ghana’s desire for revenge.
“The players who will play tomorrow, some were eight years old [in 2010],” he said. “Some people might say I’m the devil himself, but we can’t get things wrong. We played against Portugal in 2018 and we won against them. Have you heard Portuguese players say, ‘We need to vendetta’?
“Look what I did with Chiellini. Yes, it was a mistake, but after that I played against him in the Champions League and shook his hand. We can’t keep thinking about the past.”
It’s hard not to when the past starts talking to you directly. Gyan wrote in her autobiography that Miss’s “guilt and grief” are never far away and that she faces “a daily struggle to keep it out of her mind”; Ghana’s captain that night, Stephen Appiah, said anguish “will haunt us for the rest of our lives”. Suárez’s presence for the preview of the rematch was clearly provocative but Ghana coach Otto Addo, speaking half an hour later, showed no inclination to throw mud.
“If the same incident had happened in reverse and Ghana had gone through, people would have said, ‘OK, it’s normal that a player would do anything to reach the semi-finals,'” he said. “It’s not a big topic for me. I would like every player to do everything possible and also sacrifice. What happened in 2010 is very sad, but we can’t change it, we want to look forward”.
Addo’s approach needs little explanation. If Ghana, the third youngest team in this tournament, replicates the best of their dynamic and creative attack from last week, there is every chance they could finish the job. Mohammed Kudus, one of the most exciting strikers this winter, has shown that he can live among the best. But if psychology trumps football, there may be just one winner. In addition to Suárez, there are still four members of Uruguay’s South African squad. Diego Godín, Edinson Cavani, Martin Cáceres and Fernando Muslera know every trick in a well-flipped book.
Suárez was left on the bench for Uruguay’s defeat by Portugal, but a wider fixture against Ghana certainly looks like. Uruguay have been pictured among the dark horses for this World Cup, the thinking being that they finally have the midfield to bridge a robust defense and barrel attack, but now they’re on the brink and only a win will do that. “As the years go by you don’t get any younger and my pace isn’t what it used to be,” admitted Suárez. Uruguay hopes that his mere presence will push Ghana to give up the extra half-metre.