About That Game is a series looking at the data stories underpinning classic matches. This edition looks back at Uruguay 1-1 Ghana in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a game that saw a continent’s dream crushed courtesy of a penalty shootout victory for La Celeste on African soil.

Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934, South Korea/Japan 2002. One instance on its own could be dismissed as a coincidence, but these three examples expose a strange trend in the World Cup – the first time the tournament is played on a continent, the host country goes deep into the competition. So, when Africa finally landed the World Cup in 2010, all eyes were on the hosts South Africa. Connoisseurs of African football were sneaking glances at Cameroon, who were ranked 19th in the world. Hardly anyone gave Ghana a second look.

The Black Stars had only qualified for their second-ever World Cup. Their first experience in 2006 inspired hope, as they miraculously qualified from a group alongside eventual winners Italy, Czech Republic and the USA – both ranked top five in the world at the time – but the fairy-tale ended with a reality check as Brazil thumped Ghana 3-0 in the round of 16. Despite an impressive outing at the World Cup in 2006, Ratomir Dujković resigned after the tournament. Claude Le Roy was appointed but hastily sacked two years later following Ghana’s failure to win the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations as hosts. Following Sellas Tetteh’s hire on an interim basis, Milovan Rajevac was eventually confirmed as head coach of the Black Stars. 

Rajevac worked wonders in the space of a few months, reaching the final of the 2009 African Nations Championship and the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. Ghanaian football was on the rise as the U20 team had also won the youth AFCON and World Cup in the same time frame. In response, Rajevac made the bold decision to promote five members of the U20 team to the World Cup squad: Andre Ayew, Jonathan Mensah, Dominic Adiyiah, Samuel Inkoom and Daniel Agyei.

As a result, Ghana arrived in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup boasting the youngest squad in the competition, with an average age of 23 years, 352 days. What the team lacked in experience, they made up for in fighting spirit and ambition. Rajevac’s men narrowly qualified from Group D with four points – edging Australia on goal difference. Ghana once again showed their mettle, beating the USA for a second consecutive World Cup game in a dramatic round of 16 tie. Asamoah Gyan scored one of the goals of the tournament to send Ghana one step beyond their record in Germany four years prior. Standing between Ghana and a semi-final berth would be a streetwise Uruguayan side.

Ghana 2010 World Cup

Unlike Ghana, Uruguay had a more consistent technical bench. Óscar Tabárez was ever-present as the head coach of La Celeste, managing over 200 games over two different stints. It was difficult to imagine Uruguayan football without Tabárez. He led Uruguay to their only victory in the 1990 World Cup, a narrow 1-0 result over South Korea which was their first win at the World Cup in two decades. Subsequently, the South Americans went another 20 years without victory until Tabárez returned to beat South Africa in their own backyard during the 2010 World Cup.

Prior to that World Cup, Uruguay had been through a dark period. They missed out on the 2006 World Cup after losing to Australia in the playoffs. The appointment of Tabárez changed their fortunes almost immediately, as Uruguay finished fourth in the 2007 Copa America. However, they had to go all the way in the qualifiers, which included a play-off victory over Costa Rica. Consequently, the Uruguayans went into the 2010 World Cup playing more qualifying games than any other team – 20 in total.

One of the storylines of the World Cup in South Africa was the Adidas Jabulani ball, which garnered notoriety for its tendency to fizz about like a wayward firework. Players constantly complained and it wasn’t surprising to see Lionel Messi, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney all end the World Cup with just one goal between them. Possibly just as surprising was how Uruguay’s Diego Forlan mastered the Jabulani and could seemingly hit it with precision from anywhere within sight of goal. 

Forlan and Luis Suarez played key roles as Uruguay topped Group A ahead of Mexico, hosts South Africa and France. It was the first time La Celeste had topped a World Cup group since the 1954 edition in Switzerland. Suarez continued his good form, scoring a brace in the round of 16 to help Uruguay beat South Korea 2-1. The South Americans had their eye on a last four berth for the first time in 40 years, but they had to go through the last African country standing, Ghana.

With the hopes of a continent resting on their shoulders, Ghana faced off against Uruguay for the first time. The game took place at Soccer City in Johannesburg, the same venue for the final of the competition. A thousand vuvuzelas created a wall of noise that spilled over the stadium walls and reverberated around the continent. For many, this was Africa’s time to shine on the global stage, and the Black Stars had demonstrated they were ready to carry the mantle. Local fans began referring to the team from West Africa as “BaGhana BaGhana,” adapting the nickname of South Africa men’s national team – Bafana Bafana.  

The support was so overwhelming that Nelson Mandela, the first president of South Africa, sent a letter to the president of the Ghana Football Association (GFA) Kwesi Nyantakyi declaring that: “The whole of Africa is behind Ghana. We want you to go on and win the World Cup.”

To do that, the Black Stars had to beat Uruguay without two of their key players, Andre Ayew and Jonathan Mensah, who were both suspended due to accumulation of yellow cards. Isaac Vorsah recovered from injury right in time to replace Mensah as Sulley Muntari stepped up in the absence of Ayew. Muntari had big boots to fill because Ayew had created the most chances (13) and accumulated the most expected assists (1.2) for Ghana at the World Cup so far. Conversely, Uruguay’s defensive pillar Diego Godin was ruled out of the game due to a thigh injury, as Alvaro Fernandez replaced Alvaro Pereira in midfield.

Uruguay Ghana 2010 World Cup

The game was expected to be closely contested, but the atmosphere in the stadium marginally tilted the odds towards Ghana even before a ball was kicked. However, Uruguay started brighter, with Forlan being heavily involved as Ghana struggled to get out of their own half. Forlan had adopted a shoot on sight approach for the game and nearly caught Richard Kingson off guard with a free kick close to the halfway point.

Tabárez’s men thought they had taken the lead after 15 minutes when Forlan’s corner deflected off John Mensah but a point blank save from Kingson denied the one time world champions. It was a heart in mouth moment for the Black Stars, especially because Soccer City had already witnessed two own goals during the tournament from Denmark and South Korea.

Ghana had to wait till the 20th minute for their first touch in Uruguay’s penalty box. The crowd was visibly distraught, and they started a Mexican wave to encourage the teams to ignite the tempo of the game. Seconds later, Suarez was on the other end of the field, dribbling past Vorsah before unleashing a fierce volley which was tipped over the bar by the experienced Kingson, who surprisingly was fourth choice at Premier League club Wigan Athletic at the time.

Uruguay were showing no signs of fatigue, despite playing the most qualifiers and playing in five different cities across South Africa. Ghana won their first corner of the game in the 30th minute with the corner count at 6-1 in favour of the Uruguayans. Muntari delivered an in-swinging delivery which saw Vorsah – a man linked with a move to Stoke City – leap above Diego Lugano only to send his header inches wide. It was the spark Ghana needed as they went on to assert themselves in the final 15 minutes of the half. Perhaps their dominance coincided with the injury of Uruguay captain Lugano, who was replaced by Andres Scotti.

Ghana were on the ascendancy as illustrated in the expected goals race chart below and Gyan should have scored his fourth goal of the tournament after purposeful wing play by Kevin-Prince Boateng, but his side foot effort from around the penalty spot went just wide. At that point, Uruguay were struggling to deal with Ghana’s positional play as Boateng, Muntari and Kwadwo Asamoah continually found space in the middle of the park.

Uruguay 1-1 Ghana - xG race

With just a few minutes left for the half-time break, the crowd started to boo Suarez after he asked for Vorsah to be carded following a collision from an aerial duel. Both players confronted each other after the free kick and Suarez tripped the Ghanaian defender – an incident that could have been revisited by the VAR in the modern game. Referee Olegário Benquerença warned the players that similar action would see them sent off. 

Ghana were eager to score before the break as some crisp passing between Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and Boateng led to Gyan playing Ghana’s first shot on target – albeit a rather tame effort from about 30 yards. Ghana’s press was intense and they quickly won the ball back in the Uruguayan’s half. Industrious play on the wings from 20-year-old Inkoom found Boateng with a cross but the FA Cup finalist mistimed his acrobatic attempt and saw his effort sail into the stands. The pattern would become a familiar sight, as Ghana sought to create from the wings. Twelve years after the epic match, Inkoom reveals to The Analyst that coach Milovan slotted him into the team primarily due to his crossing ability.

“Before the Uruguay game, Rajevac told me to try to cross each time because I have a good cross and Asamoah Gyan is dominant in the air.”

Prior to the Uruguay game Inkoom had made nine open play crosses for Ghana in just two games, which was only behind Andre Ayew (13) and John Pantsil (16). 

The game looked like it would head into the break goalless until Gyan laid off a pass to Muntari in the middle of the park. The Internazionale midfielder unleashed a powerful shot from 35 yards which swerved away from Muslera and nestled in the back of the net. For Muntari, this goal sent a pointed statement, because he would not have played at the World Cup had it not been for Nyantakyi. The GFA president in a recent interview with Joy Sports revealed he had to “kneel” in front of coach Rajevac to plead for Muntari to be included in the squad.

Now a player who was almost an outcast had sent the entire African continent into raptures of ecstasy. Fifty-four African nations and their West African representatives were just 45 minutes away from history. A look at the expected goals at half time read 0.19 for Uruguay, 0.40 for Ghana – perhaps suggesting that the hosts had every right to start to dream.

But it was still premature to start celebrating and the players knew it, as they quickly mobilised to form a circle on the pitch. The message? Keep your heads in the game. Senior players like John Paintsil, Kevin-Prince Boateng and John Mensah kept pinning both index fingers on their head. Mensah, who had the armband, kept shouting “concentration”.

Unsurprisingly, Ghana made no changes heading into the second half. Uruguay, on the other hand, replaced Alvaro Fernandez with attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. Although Ghana began the second half right where they left off, it was Uruguay who scored against the run of play. Forlan stepped up and converted his fifth shot of the game after his free kick fooled Kingson to bring Uruguay level. The small section of Uruguayan fans went berserk, as the majority of the 80,000+ fans present went dead silent. It was Forlan’s 27th goal for La Celeste – potentially the most crucial one he had scored to date. Kingson looked disappointed especially because Ghana had relied on him, with the Wigan Athletic goalkeeper making 15 saves in the tournament before the Uruguay game. 

Despite the South Americans starting to take control, Gyan was presented with a half chance after a pass from Kevin-Prince Boateng. But the Black Stars’ talisman saw his near post effort saved by Muslera. The game grew more and more into a back-and-forth scrap, with both sides taking turns to attack. The best chance of the half fell to Uruguay with about 20 minutes left to play. Forlan and Suarez came close to recreating their first goal against South Korea in the round of 16. Forlan floated a pin point cross but Suarez’s effort marginally missed the goal, brushing the side netting.

Minutes later, Suarez saw his poked effort parried by Kingson before Gyan benefitted off a defensive mistake on the other end to force a save from Muslera with his first-time volley.  Well-constructed moves, poor execution – that was the story of the final 15 minutes as both sides couldn’t be separated after 90 minutes.

Asamoah Gyan Uruguay Ghana 2010 World Cup

For the second consecutive game, Ghana went into extra time without showing any signs of slowing down, as they continued to dominate proceedings. Gyan was on the end of almost everything and attempted the most shots (10) in the game. With extra time flying by without each side creating a decent opening, a moment of madness preceded the final whistle. Ghana were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box with seconds remaining. Paintsil’s delivery was flicked on dangerously by Kevin-Prince Boateng. Muslera came out but didn’t gather as the ball came off Mensah’s head. The ball fell kindly into the path of Appiah whose shot was cleared off the line. The rebound was then headed by Adiyiah. Time stopped in the stadium as the ball seemed destined for the back of the net, until Suarez stuck out his hand to swat away an entire continent’s dreams.

Suarez handball Ghana Uruguay 2010

Referee Olegario Benquerenca – a replacement for the initially appointed Howard Webb – brought an end to the pinball after he spotted the handball and immediately sent Suarez off. You barely see referees switched but the English official was removed by FIFA after a Uruguayan referee team, led by Jorge Larrionda, came under heavy criticism after England’s 4-1 thrashing to Germany, when Lampard’s shot clearly crossed the line but no goal was given. FIFA thought with Uruguay in action, it would be prudent to probably eliminate any English connection.

Gyan picked up the ball and placed it on the spot as history beckoned the Black Stars forward. Since missing a penalty against Czech Republic in 2006, the then 24-year-old had gone on to score all of his seven penalties for club and country including two before this at the 2010 World Cup. Gyan went for power, maybe too much power, as his effort smashed the tip of the crossbar. The stadium went so quiet that all you could hear were the Uruguayan players chanting and congratulating Muslera. One moment the stadium was ready to erupt, the next moment fans had to hold their breath for a penalty shootout. Ghana hadn’t participated in a shootout since the AFCON final 18 years prior, which they lost 11-10 to Ivory Coast.

Uruguay 1-1 Ghana goals

Forlan and Gyan both scored their respective opening penalties. The next three penalties were successful meaning Ghana had to score to equal the shootout. Mensah opted for a short run up and saw his feeble effort saved by Muslera. This was no surprise, considering it was the only penalty he ever taken in his career. Two missed penalties followed which meant that Uruguay only needed to score one more to win the game. Up stepped Sebastian Abreu, nicknamed El Loco – the crazy one. He was with Bologna at the time – his 17th club – and if Uruguay needed an experienced head come that hour, there was none better than Abreu. Abreu went for the chip down the centre, sending Kingson the wrong way. Africa was crestfallen as Uruguay rejoiced. 

Ghana Uruguay 2010 World Cup penalties

“I’d been watching their keeper and I saw that he was diving before the penalty taker struck the ball. Given that a place in the semi-finals was at stake I didn’t think he was likely to stand still,” Abreu revealed to FIFA 12 years later.

The quote above is part of FIFA’s build-up to the 2022 World Cup because there will be a replay of the ‘Hand of God 2.0’ – as it is popularly called now – in Qatar later this year. The two teams clash in the final Group H game and the result could determine who makes it to the knockout round and who boards an early flight home.

For Ghana, there is simply no game they would love to win more. When former captain John Mensah embarked on a media tour in Ghana earlier this year, the overarching theme was how deeply that match was seared into his memory. Hans Sarpei told the BBC in 2020 that he can’t forgive Suarez. Gyan, on the other hand, told the Daily Telegraph that he has found it in his heart to let Suarez go.

But Suarez has been unapologetic about the incident, with incendiary quotes such as “The ‘Hand of God’ now belongs to me” and “I made the best save of the tournament.” 

Although Muslera, Cavani and Suarez will likely be the only surviving members the 2010 Uruguay squad at this World Cup, the Black Stars can expect a team with a similar attitude. Uruguayans live by ‘Garra Charrua’ which essentially means the Uruguayan fighting spirit and never give up attitude.

Uruguay have looked exciting under new coach Diego Alonso. They’ve won seven out of nine games so far, scoring 18 goals and conceding just twice. In contrast, Ghana’s new coach Otto Addo has struggled to put a string of good performances together, winning just three out of eight games whilst scoring 10 and conceding the same number of goals. Both coaches are 47 years old, and a good performance in Qatar could prove to be a springboard in their respective careers.

Alonso showed that he still trusts Suarez and gave him 135 minutes in the last international break. With protagonists (and villains) from 2010 expected to make both squads, we’re in for an intriguing battle come 2 December at the Al Janoub Stadium.

Ghana will be looking for revenge.

You can enjoy this game in its entirety, as FIFA have uploaded the full match footage here.

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