Ken Early: World Cup grudge matches carry an extra bite – sometimes it can be too much to bear

Instead of taking vengeance on Suárez for 2010, Ghana produced their worst performance of 2022 and instead South Korea ended Uruguay’s campaign

One of the joys of the World Cup is that football is more interesting when the teams are representing countries rather than these big-money professional institutions we persist in calling clubs. And a big part of the fun is that every national team’s successes and failures can always be spun into some wider metaphor for the state of the nation as a whole.

For French liberals, the victorious France team of 1998 was a powerful symbol of the harmonious multiracial potential of France. The German triumph of 2014 became a kind of vindication of German long-termism and systems planning.

In much the same way, politicians from Germany’s right-populist AFD are using Germany’s first-round elimination in Qatar to complain that the team – like the nation – has been emasculated by woke nonsense, just as they used the previous first-round elimination in Russia to complain that the team – like the nation – had been sabotaged by having too many Turks in it.

You could point out that statistically, Germany were one of the best teams in Qatar 22 – the third top scorers after England and Spain, the highest tally of expected goals, etc. – and that their exit was really down to bad luck rather than bad performance.


But you would probably be wasting your time, since those convinced that the One Love controversy drained Germany’s essence are often also convinced that statistical analysis is just another form of woke nonsense.

While people always find a way to map the fortunes of the national team onto national politics, it’s rarer to see examples of events on the field responding to the real-world politics surrounding the teams.

This World Cup did have at least one match between big hostile powers: USA 1-0 Iran. It was plain from the build-up that, on the Iranian side at least, the game was saturated with political significance. That the American media seemed less interested than the Iranians in pursuing lines about military deployments in the Gulf probably testified to the asymmetrical impact of this enmity on the respective home fronts.

Yet the match itself was played in a sporting spirit, with no apparent edge of spite or bitterness. Both sides committed fewer fouls and received fewer bookings than they had in their respective matches against Wales.

Christian Pulisic did have to go off with what US Soccer delicately described as a “pelvic contusion”, but the injury was accidental. At the end, some American players consoled their grieving Iranian counterparts.

For contrast, the most infamously violent World Cup match of recent years – the 2006 Battle of Nuremberg – flared up out of nothing between two countries with little pre-existing beef in either football or political terms: Portugal and the Netherlands.

The flashpoint was Khalid Boulahrouz’s vicious early tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo, which set off a chain reaction of vendettas all over the pitch, and by the end the referee had shown 16 yellow cards and four reds.

An exception to the rule that politics rarely intrudes on the field came in the meeting of Serbia and Switzerland at the 2018 World Cup, when the Swiss goalscorers Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka infuriated the Serbs by making hand gestures invoking the double eagle of Kosovo in their goal celebrations.

Yet the rematch last night at Stadium 974 was just a hugely entertaining game of football with no special overtones of acrimony. With their lethal strikers and chaotic defending, the Serbs have produced some of the best games of this tournament. They will be missed.

Shaqiri scored again, but this time there was no double eagle. The Serbs for their part seemed motivated by the desire to qualify rather than by any urge to put the Swiss Kosovars in their place.

The oddest thing thing about the match was the way Serbia’s energy seemed to dissipate in the last quarter, just as you would expect it to be building to a crescendo. The memories of those insolent hand gestures evidently were not spurring them on.

Usually football grudges have roots in football, and the World Cup has no better recent example than the enmity between the peaceable nations of Ghana and Uruguay, whose football destinies will always be linked by name of Luis Suárez.

A journalist told Suárez in Thursday’s pre-match press conference that many in Ghana regard him as “El Diablo – the devil himself”.

I covered the original Ghana-Uruguay at Soccer City in Johannesburg and remember being swept along with the wave of African outrage at the 120th-minute Suárez handball that denied Ghana the winning goal that would have made them the first African team to make the World Cup semi-finals.

Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in November 2009 was then fresh in my memory and my attitude to Suarez was absolutist. I had no time for handball cheats.

Twelve years on I have calmed down enough to admit that the two situations were not really comparable. Henry’s handball was much worse – he evaded justice and escaped with his ill-gotten gains.

Suarez’s was a simple calculation: I’ll take a red card in the last minute to exchange a certain goal for a probable one. People have often described his action as “instinctive”, but do they really believe he would have done the same thing in the first minute?

As Suárez pointed out in his reply on Thursday, he wasn’t the one who had missed the penalty. Maybe it was easier for Ghana to blame him than to blame themselves.

On Friday at Al Janoub, an older, slower Suárez had to face the country whose dreams he had crushed.

“People in Ghana are looking forward to retiring you,” the journalist told him the day before the game. The Ghanaians would be like Vito Corleone when he returns to Sicily to take revenge on the ancient Don Ciccio, who killed his parents when he was a boy.

But grudges make bad motivation. Instead of taking vengeance for 2010, Ghana produced their worst performance of 2022. When André Ayew missed a penalty in the 21st minute, it felt as though by dwelling too much on the past they had condemned themselves to repeat it.

The only one who seemed inspired was Suárez, who created Uruguay’s two goals and rolled back the years with a classic nutmeg on Iñaki Williams, who knew exactly what he would try to do but was nevertheless powerless to stop it. Suarez, whose career has been in decline for a couple of seasons now, possibly hadn’t felt this important in years.

But then, after Diego Alonso had withdrawn Suárez and Darwin Nuñez in an effort to protect the 2-0, South Korea’s indomitable attacking finally got the reward it deserved with a last-minute winner against Portugal, and now Uruguay were going out.

The big screen in the stadium showed Suarez looking distraught and a hail of abuse issued forth from the Ghana supporters; realising what was happening, he pulled his shirt up over his head. At the final whistle the cameras again picked him out for the screen, now heaving with sobs, and again the Ghanaians booed and jeered.

At least we ended your World Cup, the Ghanaians seemed to be saying. But the credit for that belonged to South Korea. At Al-Janoub, it was Suárez who had knocked out Ghana. Vito would have thought it a meagre kind of revenge to end up lying alongside Don Ciccio, buried in the same coffin.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer