It was the perfect storm at the end of the perfect match. This morning, though, moral outrage is brewing. With one movement of his hands, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez has ignited yet another “debate” at this year’s World Cup finals. There is, however, one small problem – there isn’t really any “debate” to be had. There was no failure on the part of the laws of the game in this match, though. The failure was on the part of Asamoah Gyan, who blasted the resulting penalty kick against the crossbar and over. Had he scored, ninety per cent of the debate that is being had this morning would not be taking place. However, when an incident like this occurs, there are plenty of people willing to fill the moral vacuum. Whether moral absolutes have a place in a game for that has been all about the winning for longer than anyone on the planet has lived, though, is something of a moot point, to say the least.
It may surprise some of our younger readers, but even deliberate handball on the goal line hasn’t always been an automatic red card offence. Deliberate handball was lumped in with other “professional fouls” (which FIFA now call “denying an opponent a clear goal-scoring opportunity) and, as such, was only usually punished with a caution. An incident in the 1980 FA Cup Final, however, during which Arsenal’s Willie Young hauled down West Ham United’s Paul Allen when Allen was through on goal, ignited a debate over whether punishments fitted the crimes committed during football matches. The Football League issued an edict to referees before the start of the 1982/83 season that such “professional fouls” should merit automatic dismissal. This edict didn’t become enshrined in FIFA law until just prior to the 1990 World Cup finals.
Prior to this, deliberate handballs on the goal-line were a not uncommon event. During the 1981 League Cup Final between Liverpool and West Ham United, Terry McDermott dived across the Liverpool goal and saved a shot with such elasticity that it is difficult to wonder why he wasn’t playing in goal for Liverpool rather than Ray Clemence. Ray Stewart scored the resulting penalty and the match ended in a 1-1 draw, but McDermott stayed on the pitch. Liverpool won the replay, but might West Ham United have won the League Cup if Liverpool had been reduced to ten men? Possibly, but they were the rules at the time.
Turning to last night’s incident, what is clear that an unfortunate series of events came to pass and that the result was an undesirable one is not in question. However, to suggest (as some have) that the laws of the game need to be changed because of what happened last night is quite nonsensical. The failure in this incident was on the part of Asamoah Gyan, rather than the referee or the laws of the game. Had Gyan scored, we probably would not be discussing it now. It is also something of a straw man to suggest that Suarez’s handball was what knocked Ghana out of the World Cup. It was Ghana’s subsequent penalty shoot-out failure (and kudos, for the record, to Gyan for stepping up to take their first kick in that shoot-out) that knocked Ghana out of the World Cup. Uruguay even missed one of their penalty kicks.
None of this particularly excuses Luis Suarez’s actions, and his joining in the celebrations at the end of the match certainly stuck in the craw. It was an act of so little humility that the team that may be the only “underdogs” in the semi-finals will, for many neutrals, have become impossible to show any support for. However, the rules on such incidents are very clear – a red card and a one match ban for the offence. It matters not a jot that this was the last minute of extra-time or that Gyan missed the resulting penalty. Suarez will miss the semi-final match against the Netherlands – Uruguay’s biggest match for sixty years, let us not forget – and the team will be the poorer for him not being part of it. The punishment is there, laid out in front of us, but for some people this somehow doesn’t seem to be “enough”. There have already been calls for him to be banned from the final as well, but what would be the basis for this? Should Suarez be banned as retribution on behalf of Ghana? Because Sepp Blatter might have really liked an African team in the semi-finals of the World Cup?
It is easy to simply decribe Luis Suarez as a “dirty, Uruguayan cheat”, say that FIFA should throw the book at him and leave it at that, but ultimately he is a professional footballer and people getting mixed up in the moral maze of his behaviour seem to be lacking perspective on the subject. We could argue long and hard over whether it was an instinctive action or the extent to which premeditation is possible under such circumstances, but that such behaviour still elicits moral outrage retains a degree of surprise. Cheating and breaking the rules of the game (and there is a subtle distinction between the two) are as old as the game itself, and one doesn’t have to support the actions of Suarez to understand that, in football, these things happen and that they are part and parcel of the game. It may even be part of the appeal of the game, that human frailty (physical, psychological and moral) plays such a part in it. Those bringing up the notion of changing the laws of the game should be careful of what they wish for.
What happened last night was horrible for Ghana, and their anger is entirely understandable. It’s a tiny crumb of comfort on a day during which it must feel as if the sky has fallen in, but their team will be remembered as being amongst of the heroes of this World Cup. On the other hand, Uruguay’s name is tainted, the miscreant concerned will miss the biggest match of his career and the team will be the poorer for his absence. That is enough of a punishment, and calls for anything more than this do not make any rational sense. They are an emotional reaction to a series of events that have provoked an emotional response. However, those searching for moral absolutes and for right to triumph by default in the world of football are likely to remain almost perpetually disappointed.