When Suarez played a cruel ‘hand’

It is a patronising cliche that teams from Africa are enthusiastic and naive, but Ghana remains one of the best-drilled sides from the continent.

The morning after the brutal heartbreak, Ghana’s players went to visit Nelson Mandela, a man who had spent a lifetime forgiving. They walked ashen-faced through the compound of his Johannesburg home, no one in any mood to laugh or exchange pleasantries. Only the coach Milovan Rajevac offered a weak smile to the cameras, trying — perhaps in vain — to convince his lot it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

“It’s a game; we can’t say we were robbed,” the midfielder Sulley Muntari said. “We didn’t utilise our chances; so we can’t say it’s robbing. We’re not here to criticise anybody.”

“I’m OK,” said Asamoah Gyan. “I’m all right.” He had left Soccer City in tears, perhaps blaming himself for some of what happened.

They then travelled to Soweto to meet Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the great man’s ex-wife. “Not really good,” Muntari said, when asked how he felt. “But Mr. Mandela and his wife — they give us some happiness. We will come back.”

Huge crowds gathered in the predominantly black township to welcome Ghana. “The Hope of Africa” one poster read, while the spokesman of the African National Congress congratulated the Black Stars for doing ‘Mother Africa’ proud.

No African team had reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup and in 2010, Ghana was denied by the width of a crossbar and an errant hand. Deep into extra-time in the quarter-finals with Uruguay — so deep there wasn’t time for another kick — Dominic Adiyiah’s shot was palmed off the line by Luis Suarez. It was a handball so blatant even Suarez didn’t protest when he was sent off (although he brilliantly feigned surprise).

Gyan missed from the spot, the ball ricocheting off the bar and disappearing into the stands behind. Suarez, still at the mouth of the tunnel with his shirt drawn up to his face, took off in celebration.

It went to penalties, when Gyan bravely stepped up and converted but John Mensah and Adiyiah failed as an inconsolable Ghana bowed out.

Suarez expressed no regret. “The Hand of God now belongs to me; mine is the real Hand of God,” he said later. “I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it. Stopping a goal with my hand I believe I did nothing evil, it was just stopping a goal.”

To Uruguay, Suarez was a hero, a professional who took even the smallest chance there was and sacrificed his spot in the semi-finals for the sake of the team. To the whole of Africa, he was a villain whose skulduggery had done Ghana in.

South Africa was Ghana’s second appearance in the finals. Grouped alongside Serbia, Australia and Germany, the side advanced to the Round of 16 with four points. The USA presented a hurdle there, but Ghana prevailed in extra-time, Gyan controlling a long ball from the back and finishing superbly past Tim Howard. With a squad boasting players in the top European leagues and with experience of one World Cup, all it needed was for the team to be tactically wise.

Ghana first qualified for the tournament in 2006, when it notably progressed out of a group with Italy, the Czech Republic and the USA in it. There was defeat in the second round to Brazil, but there was no dishonour in it.

It is a patronising cliche that teams from Africa are enthusiastic and naive, but Ghana remains one of the best-drilled sides from the continent. The hope is, however, that its legacy in the near future won’t come to be defined by that handball.

* * * One of the best out of Africa

Alongside George Weah, Roger Milla and Rabah Madjer, Abedi Pele Ayew (in pic) is one of the greatest footballers to have come out of Africa. Quick, deft in tight spaces, and possessing of a fine left foot, Pele - nicknamed so for his ability - was one of the initial African players to make a splash in Europe. He spent five seasons in all at Marseille, winning the UEFA Champions League in 1993 as part of a side that included Rudi Voeller, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and a young Fabien Barthez.

Two years before, Marseille had lost in the final of the same competition - Pele, Jean-Pierre Papin and Chris Waddle a famous trio - to the last of the great Red Star Belgrade teams. No other French club has won Europe's principal club competition. Pele was African Footballer of the Year three times. He led Ghana to the African Cup of Nations in 1982, and was the country's highest scorer (33 goals) till Asamoah Gyan overtook him. Pele's sons, Andre Ayew and Jordan Ayew, are both regulars in the national side while a third son, Ibrahim Ayew, has also represented the country.