Ghana’s Grudge Match

Twelve years ago, Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez blocked Ghana’s shot at the semifinals with a handball. On Friday, they’ll get a chance to bite back.

A soccer player in red stands between a teammate and another player in blue.
Ghana's John Pantsil breaks up a disagreement between Isaac Vorsah and Luis Suárez in 2010. (Clive Mason / Getty)

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When Ghana meets Uruguay on Friday, the Black Stars will be out for redemption—or vengeance, depending on how you look at it.

Twelve years ago in South Africa, Ghana were on the verge of becoming the first African team to make it to the semifinals of a World Cup, the first in the tournament’s history to be hosted by an African nation. But they still had to get past Uruguay. With the match tied 1–1, the Ghanaian striker Dominic Adiyiah aimed a header straight at the goal late in overtime. The famed Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez blocked the ball, preventing a certain goal … with his hand.

Suárez didn’t get away with it. This wasn’t like Diego Maradona’s celebrated “hand of G-d” goal at the 1986 World Cup, which the Argentine hero knocked in with his hand without the referee noticing. Suárez was red-carded and sent off. But the Ghanaian forward Asamoah Gyan missed the subsequent penalty, and Uruguay went on to win the tiebreaker shootout before losing to the tournament’s eventual runners-up, the Netherlands, in the semifinals.

To this day, Suárez says he doesn’t regret his decision to use his hand to block the goal in the 2010 game. “I don’t apologize about that. I did the handball, but the Ghana player missed the penalty, not me,” Suárez told reporters at a news conference Thursday. Suárez was responding to a Ghanaian reporter who, according to ESPN, told him that he is “regarded as ‘diablo’”—the devil—“in Ghana,” and added, “We want to retire you tomorrow.”

Unlike the many times he’s tried to literally take a bite out of opposing players, Suárez’s logic is easy to grasp here. He broke the rules to get the result his team needed, but he also paid the price, and no one walked away with teeth marks. Uruguay was simply lucky that Ghana failed to take advantage. If Gyan had scored the penalty, Uruguay would have needed an equalizer playing a man down and without their leading goalscorer. Suárez would have ended up hated by his own fans instead of Ghana’s.

Friday, the two nations will face each other again, and once again, the loser will go home. A Ghanaian victory would mark another first—they would join Morocco and Senegal as one of three African teams to make it to the tournament’s elimination stages, the most ever. This will also likely be the 35-year-old Suárez’s final World Cup as a player, and if Ghana wins, his last World Cup match.

If you can understand why Suárez did what he did, then you can also understand why the Black Stars would take this one personally. For Ghanaian fans, winning will mean not just advancing to the knockout stages, but settling a grudge more than a decade in the making.