Just in case Ghanaian memories were fading, Uruguay granted them an audience with a ghost. Luis Suárez was not obliged to be the player put up for pre-match media duty but instead he walked, 15 minutes before his manager, Diego Alonso, and held court on his own. It was less a red rag to a bull than an open invitation to set it charging but the unspoken message was clear: I am still here; I am still inside your heads.
He has resided in enough of them since the astonishing, dreamlike sequence in Johannesburg 12 years ago when his handball at the end of extra time broke a continent’s hearts. The story is well rehearsed: Dominic Adiyiah’s header would have sent Ghana to the semi-finals, making them the first African side to get that far, had Suárez not parried it on the line and taken a red card.
Suárez was distraught but there was always the off chance Asamoah Gyan would falter at the spot and squander his gift. That is what happened; a desperate Suárez, watching through his shirt from the mouth of the tunnel, wheeled away in fist-pumping celebration and Uruguay went through in the ensuing shootout.
If Ghana win when they finally renew acquaintances in the flesh on Friday, they will reach the last 16 and knock Uruguay out. The same will probably be true if they draw and, however much those around the camp attempt to play down any appetite for revenge, the symbolism would be huge. Progress is one thing but it also gets personal: at 35, Suárez’s final match at Qatar 2022 will surely be his World Cup swansong.
The journalist who told Suárez that many in Ghana view him as “the devil himself”, raising chuckles around a particularly well-populated auditorium, and would relish the chance to retire him was not exaggerating too wildly. Offered an opportunity to apologize for his sleight of hand, Suárez politely declined and pointed out Gyan had ample opportunity to ensure the only regrets were his.
“I didn’t say sorry because I did the handball but Ghana’s player missed the penalty, not me,” he said. “Maybe I would apologize if I tackled and injured a player but in this situation I took 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 it said he’d do the same. It’s not my responsibility to take the penalty.”
Suárez was right: it was not as if, as the vuvuzelas trumpeted in disapproval around a fevered Soccer City, he had tampered with the rules and left Ghana without the right of reply. His instinctive action should only have postponed the Black Stars’ piece of history by a minute or so. There have certainly been less excusable flashpoints in his career and he alluded to one, the bite on Giorgio Chiellini four years later, when pressed on Ghana’s desire to take revenge.
“The players that will play tomorrow, some of them were eight years old [in 2010],” he said. “Some people might say I’m the devil himself but we can’t misunderstand things. We played against Portugal in 2018 and won against them. Have you heard Portuguese players saying: ‘We need revenge’?
“Look at what I did with Chiellini. Yes, it was a mistake but I played against him afterwards in the Champions League and shook hands. We can’t just keep thinking about the past.”
It is hard not to when the past begins speaking directly to you. Gyan wrote in his autobiography that the “guilt and pain” of the loss are never far away and that he faces “a daily struggle to keep it out of mind”; the Ghana captain that night, Stephen Appiah, has said that the anguish “is going to haunt us for the rest of our lives”. Suárez’s presence to preview the rematch was clearly provocative but the Ghana manager, Otto Addo, speaking half an hour later, was not inclined to fling mud.
“If the same incident had happened the other way round, and Ghana had gone through, people would have said: ‘OK, it’s normal that a player would do everything to reach the semis,'” he said. “It’s not a big topic for me. I’d want every player to do all he can and even to sacrifice himself. 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 side at this tournament, replicate the best of their inventive, dynamic attacking from last week there is every chance they can finish the job. Mohammed Kudus, one of this winter’s most exciting forwards, has demonstrated that he can live among the best. But if psychology overtakes football there may only be one winner. Besides Suárez, four of Uruguay’s squad from South Africa are still around. Diego Godín, Edinson Cavani, Martín Cáceres and Fernando Muslera know every trick in a well-thumbed book.
Suárez was dropped to the bench for Uruguay’s defeat by Portugal but more extensive involvement against Ghana appears certain. Uruguay were fancied among the dark horses for this World Cup, the thought being that they finally have the midfield to connect a rugged defense and barreling attack, but now they are on the brink and must win. “As the years go by you are not getting any younger and my pace is not what it used to be,” Suárez admitted. Uruguay will hope his mere presence spooks Ghana into giving up an extra half-yard.