Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez came into this tournament a highly-rated prospect, scoring 49 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie last season, yet this morning his is the name on everybody’s lips. He will miss the semi-final after his red card here in the final minute of extra time, and may have made his last contribution to the World Cup should his country fail to overcome the Netherlands in Tuesday evening’s semi-final. But what a contribution.
Depending on which way you look at it Suarez left the pitch in tears last night as either hero or villain. Deliberately, obviously blocking a goalbound shot on the line with your hand in the dying seconds of extra time, earning a certain red card and suspension to keep you out of your first – and your country’s first in 40 years – World Cup semi-final. Talk about taking one for the team.
On the other hand (sorry) you are exploiting the rules in an attempt to deny a continent its first World Cup semi-finalist. But Suarez did not cheat. And that somehow makes it worse; if the law of the sport allows for its players to influence the outcome of a match then the law is surely an ass. This was not denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was denial of a goal.
Of course had the bright young tyro Asamoah Gyan scored from the resulting penalty – as he had already done twice in this competition and would do again in the shootout – then there would be no need for this debate. But Gyan struck the crossbar, the referee blew for the end of extra time, and perhaps inevitably Uruguay’s nerve proved stronger.
It had been, too, for most of the first half. Ghana cut nervy figures early on, hesitant in possession, naive in defence. Suarez drew a fine finger-tip save from Richard Kingson, and the Ghana keeper was also alert when a John Mensah deflection sent a corner goalwards. Uruguay had plenty of free kicks and corners but were unable to make much of them.
Anyone who has watched Ghana throughout the tournament knew that they were just going through their usual routine of starting out looking like they were completely out of their depth and knew it, before suddenly becoming brilliant, and so it proved after half an hour. All it took was for Isaac Vorsah to head a corner narrowly wide and suddenly their tails were up.
This is a young, dynamic side and when they are in full flow like this they are among the most watchable teams at the tournament. The speed of their passing and movement unnerved a Uruguay side who had settled down into what they assumed was to be a routine win against a young side rendered helpless by the enormity of the occasion.
Kevin Prince Boateng once again pulled the strings in midfield, and while he has a habit of choosing the wrong option at the most frustrating moments he has surely shown enough for someone to rescue him the prospect from a season in the Championship with freefalling Portsmouth. The breakthrough came in first half injury time, not from Boateng but another Ghanaian with ties to Fratton Park.
Sulley Muntari, FA Cup winner with Portsmouth turned just-about-everything winner with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, struck a left foot shot from 40 yards that caught Lazio keeper Fernando Muslera off guard, the ball curling away from him into the bottom corner.
The game opened up considerably in the second half and pretty much stayed that way until the end of extra time. Forlan drew Uruguay level ten minutes into the second half with a brilliantly struck free kick from long range that left Kingson with no chance. But the teams could not be separated: despite several good chances for Suarez and Gyan neither side could make the breakthrough.
Penalties seemed inevitable until Suarez’s late intervention, blocking a Steven Appiah shot with his chest then Dominic Adiyiah’s effort from the rebound with his palm. After Gyan missed his penalty to that rarest of sounds at this World Cup – silence – Uruguay’s victory in the shootout seemed inevitable and so it proved, Mensah and Adiyiah seeing their kicks saved to break Ghanaian – and most neutral – hearts.
This is a young Ghana side and they will surely be back stronger still in four years’ time. Their achievement in reaching the quarter finals is all the more impressive in the knowledge that they did so without their best player, Chelsea’s Michael Essien. Gyan plies his trade at Rennes at the moment but the 24-year-old seems destined for bigger things.
Uruguay, much like Holland earlier in the day, needed a hefty dose of luck to book their first semi final spot since 1970. Suarez was romantic about his handball afterwards, saying: “The Hand of God now belongs to me. I made the most beautiful save of the tournament.” Diego Forlan called him “a national hero”. In fairness they are both correct in their way; it is not Suarez’s fault the rules allow him to do what he did. The message to Ghana fans bristling at the injustice of it all is well-known and simple: don’t hate the player, hate the game.