On July 2, the Black Stars of Ghana, the last African team left standing in the World Cup, was defeated on penalty kicks by Uruguay 4-2 in one the most bizarre finish in the competition, a lost that reverberated around the world much more than Brazil’s defeat by Holland, since Ghana stood as the standard-bearer for the whole Continent of Africa and members of its Diaspora. A definite goal by Ghana in the last minute of supplementary time was deflected by a hand play of Diego Suarez, a Uruguayan forward, whose antics following Asamoah Gyan’s failure to convert the resulting penalty kick brought disrepute to the beautiful game of football. In so doing, Suarez single-handedly dashes the hope of one billion-plus souls throughout our planet, and one can only hope something positive comes out of it. FIFA, the governing body of football, should take a determined stand against handballs by players, because such egregious behavior destroys the integrity of the game, which epitomizes the oneness of the human race.
Growing up playing football as a hobby in neighborhood competitions taught me one important lesson: not to be passionate about the game given that it brings forth abnormal behavior from ordinarily normal humans. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador almost went to war over a football game. Following Brazil’s defeat by the Netherlands last Friday, a young Haitian, distraught over the loss, committed suicide. In the 2002 World Cup, Ahn Jung-Hwan, a South Korean player, had his contract rescinded by an Italian club for his late goal in the knock out round that dashed Italy’s hope of advancing to the quarterfinals. In Bangladesh, a nation with no football tradition, irate fans rioted when a power outage interrupted the June 12 coverage of Argentina-Nigeria bout. And these are samples of notorious cases, as millions of untold stories in which passion get the better of ordinary humans are the norm rather than the exception when it comes to football.
My conscious effort upon reaching adulthood not to be fanatical about football leads me to disassociate myself from the game, which I seldom watch except of course the World Cup. But being of African descent, I nonetheless felt an affinity with the Black Stars since they were on the verge of making history by becoming the first African team ever to reach the semifinals in a competition traditionally dominated by Europeans and South American teams. I literally felt sick last Friday and decided that unless FIFA changes the rules I would forgo watching football altogether. I used to think that whenever a team lost a game, it was the result of the other side playing better but this particular World Cup negates my amateurish opinion. Moreover, the Ghana-Uruguay bout which ended in the most ignominious circumstance for the Black Stars put this perspective to rest since they were definitely the better side. To make matters worse, history is never kind to losers and the game will be mostly remembered for the missed penalty kick by Asamoah Gyan rather than the egregious action of Uruguay’s Diego Suarez who, alongside Argentine’s Diego Maradona and France’s Thierry Henri, has tarnished the reputation of football.
Although football is simple, enforcing its rules is prone to mistakes by referees that are sometimes inept or overwhelmed by a particular game. Sometimes a referee’s call is so outrageous, (the Koman Coulibaly’s annulment of a U.S goal against Slovenia is one example), one gets the feeling that FIFA is in on the fix. FIFA should explore the possibility of having a stand-by referee to take over a game in the event that the one officiating proves incapable of handling it. Being booted for incompetence during a game might be an incentive for the referees to get it right.
The countless errors made by referees during this World Cup notwithstanding, this unhappy ending for Ghana makes the case for the introduction of instant replay since a final result cannot be invalidated regardless of its unfairness and apologies to wronged teams, as was done by FIFA to England and Mexico, cannot assuage the pain associated with losing an important game. Despite its universal popularity, football may survive as the preeminent sport unless fundamental changes are made in the way its rules are enforced. In the Ghana-Uruguay quarterfinal bout, a goal not a penalty kick should have been awarded to the former since only a goalie is allowed to use his hands to block a goal-bound ball from entering the net. The idea of Diego Suarez, using himself as a sacrificial lamb (he knew he will be red-carded for the action) to starve off a likely defeat by his team was repugnant and unfair to Ghana. Diego Suarez may be regarded as a hero by his countrymen but to billions of football fans, the man is a villain, a trickster and at best a criminal.
Like most sports, football requires physical, technical and psychological abilities. In their quarterfinal against Uruguay on July 2, the Black Stars of Ghana were physically and technically superb but psychologically unprepared for the burden imposed on them by history: to become the first African team ever to reach the World Cup semifinals. The Black Stars need not be ostracized; the pressure on them was indeed too great because history is never kind to those actively seeking to make it.