Almost a decade on, the 2010 World Cup is recalled as a tournament of low-scoring matches, played out amid the distracting honk of vuvuzelas. As is usually the case, the host showed its best and most welcoming side, rendering happy memories to its visitors only to leave a disappointing legacy for South Africa itself.
Every tournament, though, will throw up at least one segue of incredible drama, of unlikely and since-forgotten heroes, skulduggery from villains and adrenaline-surging plot twists. The rest of the quarter-final between Ghana and Uruguay was decent enough. The climax to the 120 minutes made the night unforgettable.
Fine goals were scored by Sulley Muntari and Diego Forlán, but it was not a classic, in keeping with much of the rest of the fare on show during that 30 days. Luis Suárez’s handball, and the subsequent penalty drama, meant it ended up as a tale of the bad guys running off into the sunset, chortling at their ill-gotten gains.
Soccer City, a monstrous carbuncle looming over Soweto, was the venue. The South African support in the stadium lay with the Ghanaians, in a spirit of pan-African partisanship. Almost as inescapable as the vuvuzelas that month was the Shakira earworm “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)”, which blared from speakers everywhere. The sentiment of that song was followed by fans of the disappointing “Bafana Bafana” willing on their friends from West Africa to become the first ever team from the continent to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Ghana and Africa were to be denied by Suárez’s cynicism. Dirtier deeds done since mean his deliberate handball from Dominic Adiyiah’s goalbound header in the dying seconds of extra time is almost the least of his on-field sins. In fact, it was perhaps his most forgivable transgression against football’s code of conduct; an act of self-sacrifice.
Footballers of any level would consider it, if the price of breaking sportsmanship’s codes was defeat. Alongside him, teammate Jorge Fucile had made a far more obvious, diving attempt to punch the ball away to safety, but it was the then-Ajax striker whose hand got in the way.
Still, if Ghana scored their spot-kick here they would be through. Asamoah Gyan, then of Rennes, was brave enough to step up. The prize was a Cape Town semi-final against the Netherlands, who had earlier that afternoon defeated Brazil to widespread cheers in the press room. The world’s foremost footballing country brings the most journalists, and Brazil’s exit meant that those self-interested hacks still in South Africa had a good chance of being at the final a week later.
Gyan missed his penalty, crashing it against the crossbar. He had clearly been distracted by the lengthy delay as Uruguay – ludicrously – protested the innocence of Suárez. And from the vantage point of Soccer City’s press box high in the stand, Suárez’s solemn march down the tunnel became a sprint of double-fisted joy as he ran to the dressing room.
And yet, when the dust had cleared, and a penalty shootout followed, it was Gyan who chose to take Ghana’s first penalty after Forlán had stroked home the opener. Whereas Stuart Pearce waited six years to find redemption for England in scoring a spot-kick against Spain at Euro 96, Gyan was not given much more than five minutes to collect himself.
This time, he slotted past Fernando Muslera to set up a sequence that ended with Adiyiah, denied a second time, missing his penalty. Uruguay’s Sebastián Abreu rubbed Ghana’s noses in it, scoring the decider with a Panenka.
Gyan’s redemption had lasted barely five minutes as he broke into understandable tears. Uruguay’s celebrations did not show much in the way of regret. “Calling it cheating is too hard, it could have been a mistake,” said their coach, Óscar Tabárez, in the press conference. It was an answer that defied credibility, almost as deeply as what had taken place during the match itself.