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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Deliberate Handball of Luis Suarez of Uruguay: A Moral Dilemma with a Just Punishment? by Adam Howard

by Adam Howard for World Football Commentaries.

Editor's Note

This commentary was published originally on 7 July 2010.

Put yourself in Luis Suarez’s shoes for a moment. It’s the quarter finals of the World Cup, the game is locked at 1-1 in the final seconds of extra-time, and the ball is careening into your goal. You can’t reach it with your head, leg or any legal part of your body, but could punch the ball clear if you so choose to.

Would you? I would.

But that causes a complex moral dilemma for me, because I can completely understand the outraged reaction of the Ghana players. Obviously, if Asamoah Gyan had slotted the penalty, we wouldn’t be asking the question but it would still be relevant. Is the award of a red card and a penalty punishment enough for stopping a certain goal? Not a probable goal, a certain goal.

Against Cheating

It’s troubling because I like to think that I am totally opposed to cheating in football. I am a vocal critic of players who dive for instance, and if I had my way any player who could be found guilty of diving using post-match video replays should be given an automatic three-match ban. I play football myself, and have never felt the urge to dive – it is, in my opinion, a detestable method of cheating.

But I am also honest enough to admit that in Luis Suarez’s shoes, I would do precisely what he did. Suarez was hailed as a hero for his actions; the Uruguay players paraded him around the pitch on their shoulders after they won the shoot-out, all because he deliberately broke the rules of the game. I don’t think any blame goes to Suarez – he knew the risks he was taking.

While not the ethical choice, he knew that he would be sent off and concede a penalty for doing what he did. He probably expected Ghana to convert the subsequent spot-kick when he handled the ball, and so he made his choice in the full knowledge that his team would probably still lose the match. With such a great deal at stake in the match though, even the exceedingly slim chance of Gyan missing made the gamble worthwhile.

Was the Punishment Fair?

That the gamble paid off for Suarez raises the more interesting question, which is not whether Suarez was right or wrong to do what he did, but whether the punishment for the offence that he willingly committed was a fair one.

Put simply, Ghana had scored a goal. The ball was going in, and no player could legally prevent that from happening. Yet in return for the illegal denial of a certain goal, Ghana were given the chance to score from the spot, with the key word being chance. Penalties aren’t easy, that’s a myth. World class goalkeepers have great reactions, are extremely agile and can read you pretty well. Only the most accurate and well struck penalties guarantee a goal.

When you also consider that Asamoah Gyan was awarded a penalty on which rested the hopes not just of his teammates, not just of his country, but of the entire continent of Africa who were desperate to see an African side lift the World Cup, that makes scoring a penalty even less simple. Factor in a ball that can euphemistically be called contentious, and Gyan has a very unenviable task indeed.

Even without these particular circumstances though, the trade of a ‘certain-almost-goal’ for a penalty isn’t really a fair one. Ghana had already breached the Uruguay defence and, to all intents and purposes, put the ball in the net. Could the referee not simply award the goal, and caution or dismiss Suarez for his petulance? Well… no, he couldn’t.

Clear Goal-Scoring Opportunity Rule

And not just because the rules don’t permit it. Doing so would create a precedent, because the rules that saw a penalty awarded and Suarez dismissed tally with the rules that govern the punishment for any foul inside the penalty area that deny a clear goal scoring opportunity. If a player, about to rifle a shot into the corner of the net, is taken down by a desperate defensive lunge, the outcome is the same.

That’s not to say that all ‘clear goal scoring opportunities’ are equal in the eyes of FIFA, the referee or whichever footballing deity you wish to ascribe the power to. Ghana’s was an exceptional circumstance, but the assumption is that a player ready to tap into an empty net who is unceremoniously assaulted would be just as certain to score as Ghana were.

Rules work, unfortunately, on assumptions. We can’t legislate for every possible eventuality because as football constantly reminds us, anything can happen in sport. And though some would argue that Yakubu being fouled in front of an open goal wouldn’t necessarily constitute the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity whereas the same infraction involving David Villa would, they would be opening a very large can of worms.

Legislating Rules and Punishments

Ultimately, the Suarez incident demonstrates the difficulty of legislating rules and punishments in sport. Whatever the governors of the game do, players will invariably and inevitably push rules to the limit – and as we’ve ascertained, there are plenty of people who would have done precisely as Suarez did. The fact is, on most occasions the laws of the game and punishments do their job – we just don’t notice when they do.

It is always the unique and unusual circumstances that cause controversy. The sad fact is that, much as we all feel sorry for Ghana and for Asamoah Gyan in particular – rules are rules. While Ghana will feel – and many neutral fans will agree – that it was the Black Stars who deserved to face the Dutch in the first semi-final, Uruguay earned their place there fair and square.

Was a Deliberate Hand Ball Fair and Square?

To describe a deliberate hand ball preventing a certain goal on the line as “fair and square” is quite controversial – I’m well aware of that. But my point is that Uruguay served their punishment and should not be begrudged their progression in the match. We all take as full an account of the possible consequences of any chosen action/decision before we commit to doing anything – Luis Suarez just did what came naturally, and I can’t begrudge him for that.

About the Author

Adam Howard is the founder of They Think It’s All Over…

You can follow Adam @TTIAOblog on Twitter.

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