The Hand of Suárez: The Nature of ‘Cheating’

Luis Suárez is a great striker and one of the best forwards at the world cup. He also helped his team into the semi-finals with a piece of calculated rule-breaking which has enraged many observers of the game. I suggest that what he did is perfectly acceptable within the rules and the spirit of the game as it currently stands.

In the last minute of extra time after a fairly even and exciting game, Uruguay striker Luis Suárez handled a goal-bound shot, preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity to Ghana. Under the rules of the game, he was sent off, a penalty was awarded to Ghana, and Suárez will be subject to a ban. So what’s the problem? The heart of the matter, I suspect, is that Ghana missed the subsequent penalty, Suárez celebrated like he had won the World Cup single-handed, and Uruguay won the match on penalties. Suárez has subsequently been dubbed a ‘cheat’ and Ghana’s elimination from the tournament is being routinely described as ‘unfair’.

Not everyone thinks this is the case. There are long debates in the comments sections of the BBC and Shin Guardian sites – at the latter, over 60% of those polled agreed with the statement that Suárez’s handball had been “brilliant” play. Suárez himself has reacted particularly gracelessly. Perhaps if he had said that it wasn’t ideal but under the circumstances it was his only option then more people would sympathise, but saying that his handball was “the best save of the tournament” is unnecessarily confrontational. I don’t find him a very pleasant person – he dives a lot and is often guilty of needling little fouls – and these comment’s fit pretty well with my general impression of him.

However, what Suárez said or did afterwards is ultimately irrelevant. What happened should be judged as a single piece of foul play in a football game – the minute on the clock, the opposition and the occasion all must be ignored. It seems to me that a lot of people who are up in arms (no pun intended) about this are unaware that this happens relatively often. It’s neither a new phenomenon, nor one which football has failed to legislate against. Would people be so angry about this if it were Bolton vs Stoke and Gary Cahill was sent off in the 23rd minute for a similar handball on the line, leading Bolton to play with ten men for the remainder of the game, and to lose their player to suspension? No, I don’t think so – and I certainly don’t remember an outcry like this on any of the numerous occasions I have seen it happen before. My suspicion is that the occasion (the World Cup), the time on the clock (last minute of extra time) and particularly the opposition (the last African team in the competition) have all contributed to the uproar.

Much like England’s phantom ‘goal’ against Germany ignited the goal-line technology conversation, this debate is a product of the context. There is, though, a crucial difference. Football has been dealing with this problem (handball in the area) for a long time, and has legislated adequately against it, at least according to most observers (whereas the goal-line debate is fairly recent due to the available technology and has demonstrably not been addressed in any serious way). Handling a goal-bound shot happens a few times each season and everybody knows what comes next – red card, penalty, suspension. It’s a part of the game, a calculated sacrifice by the outfield player, and I can’t imagine that *any* player would refrain from doing so. I certainly don’t buy the Ghanaian line that nobody in that group of upstanding individuals would ever have committed such an outrage – their time-wasting and diving against the U.S.A. rather undermines that argument. (On a side note, I find the metaphorical patting on the head for poor plucky little Ghana that everyone is engaged in just a little bit patronising and offensive).

It is even a stretch to call what Suárez did ‘cheating’. No unfair advantage was gained through violence or deception, and this is the most salient point for me. Nobody is put out of the game except the offender, unlike many tackles which are permitted under the current rules. No act of rule-breaking went unpunished either. It’s about the most honest bit of ‘cheating’ you could imagine. I feel like this World Cup has been badly undermined by exaggeration and diving, by unpunished fouls, and by the constant attempts to get opponents booked or sent off (including the most unsporting act of all, asking the referee to produce a card, which sadly is almost universal these days). What Suárez did is nothing like any of these. It is a phenomenon which has a longstanding and widely-accepted place in the game and the same would be done by the most sporting footballer.

If people want to start the debate about the awarding of a penalty goal or longer suspensions, that’s fine (bearing in mind that asking a referee to decide whether it was definitely going in is opening a horrendous can of worms), but this is one piece of ‘cheating’ that is not about bad sportsmanship. In my humble opinion.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

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