Written in December 2013 by Sanket Prabhu
Edited in March 2015 by Marsha Kononenko and Helena Wang
The stage was finally set. Africans around the world and those who had taken on the Black Stars as their second team were cheering the men in red on. The ball looked so close to crossing the line. And then in just a moment, it was all taken away. The Hand of God 2.0, as some will fable, had risen from the grave in the form of another young South American. Luis Suárez, in a last ditch effort to save his country’s place in the World Cup, took it upon himself to become the illegal goalkeeper and batted the ball out of the net with his arms, stunning viewers all over the world. Some Ghanaians, preparing to rejoice, were stopped cold as they saw their dreams potentially torn away. Yet there was another chance for redemption.
Suárez’s point of view tells a different story. Uruguay, once held in high esteem in the world football stage, had retreated over the past 40 years. With the likes of Diego Forlan and Suárez himself, this current team was one of the best teams since the glory days and the semi-finals were an enormous goal for a country that craved to be a team that was on par with the other South American greats. Thus, Luis took it upon himself to save his country and ignored the rules, handling the ball in an attempt to save Uruguay’s spot in the semis. Rightfully so, a red card was issued to Suárez banning him from the possibility of playing in the semis, but at least he gave his team the chance to do so.
The pressure thus shifted to Asamoah Gyan, but unfortunately the soccer gods did not deem it his day. The penalty missed off the bar and the final whistle for regular time blew. For a second, everybody on the pitch and around the world watching took a second to digest what had happened. Penalty kicks are made more often than not so there was a slim chance Suárez’s act wouldn’t be in vain. But on that particular day, the small chance came through and Uruguay was relieved with a second opportunity to advance to the semis. Overtime was a grind and ended scoreless leading to the ever dreaded penalty shootout. 10 shots to decide the game. With the pressure of their entire nation riding on each of the players’ back, they stepped up and did what they probably practiced hundreds of times on the practice pitch. Kingston – Ghana’s keeper who had done extraordinarily well during the cup – was unfortunately not able to carry the team into the semis. Uruguay rejoiced, while Ghana was left with the bitterest of tastes in its mouth.
Highlights from the memorable game; skip to 3:20 for the handball incident
The Black Stars had garnered a mass following from those who saw their teams duck out early in the group stages and decided to then cheer on a team that was playing extraordinarily well. But the bandwagon fans were not nearly as invested as the African fans who rallied behind this historic team. Sporting stars like Kingson, Boateng, Mensah, and Asamoah, to name a few, this team showed the world that Africans can be superstar names, and deservedly so. Since the days of Cameroon, Africa had not had so much hope behind a team, aside from the sparks that came from Côte D’Ivoire. Though it was only their second appearance at the World Cup, they are the most successful team in African Nations Cup history. They had narrowly lost their bids to attend the World Cup in the 3 decades preceding their eventual 2006 berth. Ending their qualification run for 2010 with a dominating final two games, they rather easily booked their tickets for South Africa.1
With the stage set and the Black Stars in form, Africa had hope like never before. They made it through group stages handily, and even knocked the United States out of the tournament. The dream was alive and kicking for Africa and the support came from around the continent to cheer on the Ghanaians. They were making a statement that Africa belongs at the forefront of football and the African FAs were finally stepping up to help the teams get there. Before, a lot of players were poached by European countries to gain the better opportunities those teams had on the international stage. A good example of this is the Boateng brothers, one who elected to wear a German jersey while the other represented his Ghanian colors. But now, with the Ghanaians making it this far, it showed that African teams can be competitive with the others. It certainly convinced many players to keep their nationality not only because of the amazing fans, but also because of the great team in front of them.
The Hand of God had reemerged and gifted Uruguay with a second breath. One would think a player sent off when his team needed him most would be deflated, but Suárez was the opposite – he appeared pleased with what he had done: saved his nation’s dreams. He even seemed a little puzzled at first by the call, but that didn’t fool the referee as he immediately pulled out red. His reactions after were part of the reason while he became vilified by quite a significant amount of soccer fans. Instead of leaving the field as one is supposed to do after having been shown red, he stayed in the tunnel and watched Gyan’s penalty hit the bar. Upon seeing his team still had a chance, he celebrated as if he himself had scored, quite visibly from the tunnel that too.
His next appearance was after the penalty shootout was over and he rushed onto the fields to join his teammates in jubilation. The rest of the team lifted Suárez on their shoulders, similar to how Pelé was lifted after inspiring his team to win in 1970.2 The stark contrast is obvious – on one side of the story is a player that carried his team, and the other side is a player that destroyed the dreams of an entire continent. Suárez was a hero in the eyes of Uruguay and was on top of the world for that moment. If he had any sense of regret, you certainly could not see it. The Ghanaians on the other side were distraught, unable to come to terms with how the semis were snatched from their grasp. It was a scene full of emotion, but with a striking disparity of feelings from one side to the other.
Sports news casts quickly got word of Suárez’s offense and were quick to judge in one way or the other. There was nothing that could be done now that the final whistle had been blown sending Uruguay into the semis, but many questioned if they truly had the right to be there. Suárez afterward did not do much to help his villainous image in the press. Just like when England was cheated by Maradona’s hand goal, he was quoted saying the following:
“The ‘Hand of God’ now belongs to me. Mine is the real ‘Hand Of God’. I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it.”
“Now we are in the semi-finals although I was very sad because no-one likes to be sent off.”
“The celebration afterwards was impressive, but very quiet because nobody gave us a chance but, with courage, we move forward.”3
It doesn’t take much to see that none of these remarks accept any guilt for robbing Ghana in a quite unethical way. Maradona’s hand ball, though resulting in the same victorious outcome, did go unpunished, in contrast to Suárez’s goalkeeping act. His humorous remark about goalkeeping probably didn’t appease those critical of his save, just pouring salt on the wound instead. It was almost as if he had done something great that should be remembered forever. It will certainly be remembered forever, but probably not for the reasons he wishes – especially when it comes to the African fans. He was sadder for himself that he would not be able to play in the semifinals rather than the fact that he crushed the dreams of so many. One cannot make him feel remorse, and cannot say that he should feel it. It is every player’s dream to play in the World Cup, and it was one great game that Suárez ended up missing. At the end of the day, Suárez was accordingly punished by the referee and shown red as the laws dictate.
The entire incident was handled according to the FIFA law book by the referee. Suárez had committed a handball in the penalty box, resulting in a penalty kick. Furthermore, it was deliberate and stopped a clear goal-scoring opportunity, resulting in the red card. There is nothing mentioned in the laws about if it was a potentially game winning goal, or if it broke the hearts of many. The result wasn’t unprecedented, as numerous occasions can be cited where a player intentionally handled the ball and the same exact consequences were dealt out by the referee. I personally see many more despicable acts in the form of vicious studs up tackles, and few of these have seen the backlash that Suárez’s act brought upon him. Even diving or faking injuries, potentially more damaging to the game because of its frequency, are usually forgotten by the next fixture. He did not physically hurt anybody, nor evoke anything in the way of racial slurs or other unsportsmanlike things. He got caught up in the moment, and reacted in a way that fairly got his team into the next round, according to FIFA laws.
The story of unsportsmanlike conduct definitely is at play here, but the situation played out exactly like it should have according to FIFA. John Pantsil, Ghanaian defender, spoke out saying that no Ghanaian player would have done the same act of Suárez.4 He may be an honorable man and true to his word, but it is really hard to judge without actually experiencing the situation. The situation was so unique with the amount of pride and emotions riding it – a once in a lifetime phenomenon. The argument that then comes to fruition is: was it simply instinct? Humans are well known for their survival instinct and this can easily be seen as the result of it. Suárez not only wanted his Uruguay team to survive, but also the dreams of everyone back home. A football player is also taking information about the field, whether the ball is at his field or not. They are inundated with information and react in a split second – at least the best do. Suárez probably did not have time to think or evaluate how the handball would play out. All he saw was win or lose, and he chose the chance to win. Whether Pantsil’s remarks are true cannot be tested unless a similar situation presents itself, but there is sufficient reason to give Suárez the benefit of the doubt given the circumstances and what was riding on the result. He was a young player shouldering the burden of a country that yearned relevance in the world football scene ever so much. When time came, he made his decision and is now living with it for better or worse.
Though Suárez’s handball incident is what he will be most remembered for during the 2010 World Cup, it is still important to not forget the great player he is. In addition to his prolific goal scoring on the field he also contributes a lot off the field. He was part of a group of players at the World Cup that went to a youth tournament and spoke to young South African players, serving as an inspiration. Suárez himself is a rags to riches story and was a role model to those kids he met. Though some may dislike him, his work off the field must be appreciated too. Below is the portion of a documentary that included the kids meeting Suárez.
The Suárez excerpt from a documentary filmed where youth players got to meet their idols
‘Let bygones be bygones’ is the attitude that should be applied to this fiasco. Some dreams were made, while others were squashed. Suárez could have handled the situation a little better in understanding the African point of view, but his youth got the best of him as he celebrated without remorse; but then again it’s hard to imagine the joy of getting his country so far. At the end of the day, it was just a game. There are always going to be winner and losers, with the game deciding who ends up on which side. With little actual real world impact aside from national pride, there is nothing we can do but move on. FIFA made its decision to not pursue further punishment for Suárez and that was the end of the incident. What is more important is to keep in our minds is the great strides that Ghana has made for African football, and the flurry of goals that brought Suárez to become one of the world’s more feared strikers. The 2014 World Cup is quickly approaching and new drama will surely unfold to take place of this incident.
Luis Suárez came into the 2014 World Cup as one of the biggest players to watch. He has just came off an incredible season with Liverpool F.C. in the English Premier League, and was expected to carry the Uruguayan team far into the tournament. Uruguay was selected to be in Group D, playing against Costa Rica, England and Italy in the group stages. The group was considered one of the tougher groups, and all eyes were on Suárez as he comes into the game with his exceptional scoring ability clashing with his past background.
Since his 2010 World Cup appearance, the Uruguayan has been no stranger to controversy. In November 2010, he bit PSV’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during a 0-0 draw between Ajax and PSV 5. Ajax suspended him for two games and fined him an undisclosed amount for the incident. During his time at Liverpool in 2011-2012, he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United player, Patrice Evra. Suárez was given an eight-game suspension and fined for that incident as well. During the 2012-2013 season, he again bit Chelsea player Branislav Ivanovic and was given a ten-game ban for the incident. It seemed that after this incident, Suárez has turned over a new leaf – he had a relatively uncontroversial 2013-2014 season, and did incredible on the pitch, winning the PFA Player of the Year award.
Coming into the 2014 World Cup, Uruguay had some tough matches ahead of them. The team, however, is still on the cusp of becoming the great team that had a big chance to make it all the way. The first game was against Costa Rica, which Uruguay (at the time) shockingly lost to. Next up was England, which Luis Suárez played a great game and scored both goals to easily win against the Three Lions. With Costa Rica sitting on top with two wins, and England probably being sent home with two losses, the final battle between Italy and Uruguay would decisively determine who will make it to the knockout round.
Italy and Uruguay started out relatively monotonous, with the first half ending in a scoreless tie. Around the 79th minute, Suárez bit the left shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Chiellini showed the bite marks to the referee who missed the incident. As the Italian players protested to the referee for not penalising Suárez, Uruguay won a corner and Diego Godín scored, winning the game for Uruguay and leading them to the knockout stages. On the same day of the match, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Suárez regarding the biting incident. With his past biting history, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee banned Suárez for nine international matches, effective immediately, meaning he would take no further part in the World Cup6. He was also banned from taking part in any football-related activity (including entering any stadium) for four months and fined CHF 100,000.
A replay of Suárez biting Chiellini during the Italy vs. Uruguay game.
The video of Suárez chomping down on Chiellini rapidly spread across the globe, with many people questioning how he got away with it during the game. Some say that his punishment was not harsh enough, as he does have an extensive history of biting other players. A comical photo of Suárez holding his tooth, as if he was the one that got injured, became one of the defining pictures of the tournament. After the match, Suárez was quoted saying,
“These are just things that happen out on the pitch. It was just the two of us inside the area and he bumped into me with his shoulder and that’s how my eye got like this as well. There are things that happen on the pitch and you should not make such a big deal out of them7.”
A few days after the match, Suárez apologized to Chiellini over Twitter, stating that,
“… the truth is that my colleague Giorgio Chiellini suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me … I apologize to Giorgio Chiellini and the entire football family. I vow to the public that there will never again be another incident like [this]8.”
Since this biting incident, Suárez has transferred from Liverpool F.C. to Barcelona F.C., with a rumor that there is a biting clause included in the contract. While no such controversy has happened yet with his new team, Suárez has proven time after time that he will continue to be one of the most polarizing figures in the sport.
How to cite this article: “The infamous handball that stopped an African dream” Written bySanket Prabhu (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on (date)).