Tonight in Cape Town, Uruguay will take the field against Holland in their biggest match since their last World Cup semi-final in 1970. It will be the biggest match any of their players have ever played and – unless topped by an even bigger one on Sunday – are ever going to play. But, as you are of course aware, one of their key strikers will be missing through suspension, and their arrival at this stage of the competition has been highly controversial following Luis Suarez’s last minute handball in the quarter-final against Ghana last week. You will already have seen plenty of coverage of this incident, not least including Ian’s article here on twohundredpercent the other day, so I won’t go through the detail again.

I will however make my own position clear at the outset – I do not regard what Suarez did as cheating. And nor am I going to hide behind the excuse that some have used, including Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez, that the reaction was instinctive. As it happens this is true – there are all kinds of fascinating studies you can easily find on the internet about intentionality and the nature of thought, and they generally suggest that the time required for the brain to process and act upon a conscious decision is considerably longer than the time available to a player in such circumstances – however it rather misses at least a couple of points. Firstly, instinctive behaviour is still learned, and can be unlearned or indeed not learned. Diving is instinctive too, if it’s to be done at the moment of the foul, but not all players do it and it doesn’t make it any more acceptable. (Sometimes you do see amusing instances of players diving a second or two after the incident after having had to think about it first. It usually gives the player a bad reputation for diving which is probably unfair, the comical nature of the dive itself tends to suggest they’re not well-practiced enough for it to come naturally.) Secondly, Suarez himself isn’t hiding behind any such excuse, he’s totally unrepentant and proclaiming it to have been well worth it. I would too, I’m sure. If I’m almost certain that I would do the same thing instinctively, then I’m *absolutely* certain I would do it if I had time to consider it. If it might get Scotland to a World Cup semi-final. Of course I would.

Some of you, I understand, find that attitude despicable and will already have written off anything further I have to say on the matter. But regardless of whether or not you disagree with me on the specifics, what interests me is the reaction to this incident, and the differing conceptions it has highlighted on what constitutes cheating in sport.

“All footballers are cheats” – Jimmy Greaves

Some people I’ve spoken to in the past few days have defined cheating as any act contrary to the laws of the game, or at least any such act that might be committed intentionally. Or any and every attempt to encourage a referee to make what you know would be an incorrect decision. And so on and so forth. Personally, I don’t find any of these definitions very useful. Or at least they’re fine as far as they go but such an all-encompassing definition leaves you needing another word when it comes to instances of such cheating that we find particuarly unacceptable.

Because, laying aside for now how we want to use the word, there is a wider set of unwritten “rules” or code of conduct over and above the laws of the game which determines what is and isn’t considered legitimate among professional footballers in their attempts to stretch the rules or to use them to their maximum advantage. There are such acts of “cheating” which do not generally come with any particular moral baggage. Claiming throw-ins, goal kicks or corners you know not to be yours, is an obvious case in point, or exaggerating or at least emphasising the impact of fouls being another, being somewhere on the same continuum that eventually results in “diving” – though with disagreement as to where the crossover actually occurs. At any and every set piece there are several defenders and attackers skirting with the rules, either doing just enough to stay within them or – more likely – going someway beyond them but to a degree that they hope will not be deemed sufficiently serious to be worth penalising. All of this is such an integral part of the game that it’s impossible for me to imagine what it would be like without it. I’m not sure I can even envisage a game of football in which no player ever attemped anything they knew to be outwith the rules – I suspect that it would be turgid and unwatchable and that there would ne no World Cup taking place at the moment because the sport wouldn’t even exist as we know it.

So if your definition of cheating is such a strict one defined simply in relation to the letter of the laws of the game then Suarez’s act was no different from literally hundreds of other incidents that were taking place within the same game – except that it was perhaps more critical. (Or more to the point, that its criticality was more obvious – any of those other hundreds of incidents might just have easily been critical moments that led to or prevented a goal, and perhaps some of them were without our necessarily being aware of it. Indeed, if there were no possibility of any such action, however small, turning out to be a critical game-changing one than there would be no point in doing it.) There is no supporter of any football team in the world who has not celebrated a goal achieved by such an act at some point – indeed, many such goals, some more conspicuous than others. Even if you think none of that excuses Suarez, it’s impossible to explain in these terms why so many people are singling him out for such opprobrium as hs has attracted in some quarters in the last few days.

This opprobrium is only really explicable by thinking of cheating not in such strict terms, but by defining it instead in relation to that wider code of what footballers should and shouldn’t be allowed to do before they are considered to have overstepped the mark. But here, of course, things get messy, because this code is necessrily unwritten and vague and dependent on a fuzzy set of cultural norms which have in some respects varied considerably over the course of time. In some cases these variances are easy to track by watching some of the awful tackles that went unpunished in the game in the 70s. Every decent team had a midfield hatchet man and the general convention was that your first tackle was effectively “free” to make as much of a mark as you liked on an opponent before the ref would consider taking any action.On the other hand, diving is a worse problem now than it was then.

And goal line handballs themselves provide an interesting study in changes in attitude. Suarez is now already notorious and will be remembered for this handball whatever else he does, even if he scores the winner in the final this weekend – in fact, *especially* if he scores the winner in the final this weekend. Compare and contrast with Mario Kempes, star of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning side, and golden boot winner that year. There were many dubious aspects of Argentina’s win that year, but I’ve never been aware of any stain against Kempes’s name personally, and indeed I confess to having been unaware until the other day that he did exactly the same thing as Suarez in a second round match against Poland. It’s just over two minutes into this clip:

As Ian’s article noted the other day, red cards weren’t introduced for such offences until 1990 – indeed Kempes wasn’t even booked – and in this instance not only did Poland’s Kazi Deyna (subsequently of Manchester City) miss the penalty, which would have levelled the scores at 1-1, but Kempes himself went on to rub their noses in it by scoring the second goal later in the game. (He had already scored the first.) I was too young at the time to remember whether this incident caused any great level of uproar at the time, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have caused any lasting harm to the player’s reputation. And there’s no particular reason why it should. Such clearances at the time were relatively commonplace and it was considered normal for a player to do it if he was back on his own goal line. When mandatory red cards were introduced for it I remember at least a few old timers arguing against any such necessity, they considered a penalty enough punishment and if it was missed then hard lines.

Evidently in the intervening years attitudes have hardened and – for some people – such behaviour is now considered to have crossed that line of acceptability and become “cheating”. I’m curious as to why this should be – I’d find it very hard to argue that it was through some greater sense of fairness than we had in the past, or any process of cleaning up the game, because there are other respects in which standards seem to have gone the other way, where behaviour is now tolerated that would not have been thirty years ago. It’s probably a mistake to look too deep for reason, and I shall just accept that such things are subject to the vagaries of fashion like anything else.

But it makes any attempt to judge Suarez by some supposed absolute standard a tricky business. And even more so when we consider that these cultural standards continue to vary geographically as well as historically. Here we get into even muddier territory, because any attempt to highlight such differences in cultural attitudes across national boundaries risks falling into racial stereotypes and thinly disguised finger-pointing at dirty foreigners. But while you have to be very wary of how you treat any such allegations, that does not mean that different attitudes do not exist and that no attempt to identify them is possible.

In ye olden days, any such effect would be a good deal more pronounced. Here’s Frank Swift, another Man City legend, talking of his first experience of continental opposition, against an (unnamed) Italian side in the 30s.

I have never seen a team so kicked as were City that day. At a fair estimate we reckoned we should have been awarded twenty-four penalties. Fred Tilson said that day largely changed the rule book for him. He’d always been told to keep his eyes on the ball, this match he had to keep his eyes on the Italians before looking for the bounce of the ball.

I don’t wish to comment on to what extent Swift may or may not have been right in his observations – I chose that example because I found “the rule book” to be an interesting choice of phrase. I’ll also give you the more recent story of Sammy Lee, who played in Spain for a bit in the 80s, as recounted in Morbo.

When Sammy Lee turned up for his first training session at Osasuna in 1987, he was amazed to learn that the session was to consist solely of diving practice, in and outside the box. His protests fell on deaf ears.

Nowadays of course, any such differences are being ironed out, with football becoming increasingly homogenous as players move around the world and the top club sides play far more game against overseas opposition in addition to an increased international programme. But even now, differences still exist – or at least perceptions of them, which is significant in itself. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s pre-match comments about the nature of Argentinians and the way they pressurise referees fell somewhat on the wrong side of racial stereotyping, in my book, but the general perception that some South American sides in particular feel able to justify different standards of behaviour in their endeavours to win does, I think, have some germ of truth in it. I stress I do mean “different”, and not “worse” – it works both ways and there may well be other areas in which they see European behaviour as beyond their own boundaries. (When the Spanish Conquistadores first arrived in what is now Latin America back in the 16th century they were horrified by the practice of human sacrifice. The locals, however, were likewise horrified by the Spaniards’ barbaric practice of burning people alive. There are much wider points that could be made here – all morality is subjective and culturally defined, and the presentation of issues framed in terms of moral absolutes is a problem and the cause of much bad journalism in many much more serious issues than football. But I’ll stick to the football here.)

So whether or not Luis Suarez’s handball is “cheating”, or whether it’s a form of cheating we find particularly worthy of condemnation, is an entirely subjective thing, and some of the moral grandstanding I’ve read and heard this week has been pretty abysmal. I am not, however, using that to dismiss anyone who does indeed think that such handballs are beyond the bounds of acceptability. In my own moral univserse, I don’t see it as that serious – I’ve already said I would do the same myself and would expect most professional footballers to do so. (For the cricket fans amongst you, here’s one interesting question I saw asked on a message board – is it any different from a batsman padding up to a leg spinner that pitched outside his leg stump? Would anyone argue that “fair play” demanded he stand aside and allow the ball to hit the wicket?) On the other hand, I see diving as a much more serious problem about which we can and should be doing much more to tackle. I just try not to pretend that my own moral code is the “right” one, or better than anyone else’s. (I regret that I don’t always succeed, as anyone who has heard me ranting about, say, Shevchenko’s dives for Ukraine against Scotland can testify.)

Ultimately, if we want particular types of behaviour stopped, then rather than castigate individuals we have to change the rules to make such behaviour not worth their while. From that point of view, although I’ve had very little sympathy for those commentators who have laid into Suarez this week, I have a good deal more sympathy for those proposing a change to the rules – it is from just such thinking, after all, that I supported the introduction of mandatory red cards for such offences in the first place. In almost every instance a sending off, along with a penalty, is a sufficient punishment, but it had occurred to me that situations might easily arise in the last minute of a critical game in which that wasn’t the case. This is the first time I can recall seeing it happen. Unfortunately, while sympathising, I don’t have a solution to offer. The prospect of a referee being able to award a penalty goal opens whole cans of worms that, to me, make the solution considerably worse than the problem, given the rarity of this situation. But I know plenty of people disagree, and it’s right that we should have the debate – the only way of resolving such issues of ethics in the game is to arrive as best we can at a consensus and then set the laws of the game accordingly.

I’d just much prefer it if the debate was conducted in a more reasoned manner, without all the moral high-horsery and the pretence that Suarez’s action was in any objective sense an act of a more reprehensible nature than so much else that goes on in the game, and indeed so much that is integral to it. This isn’t about villainy, it’s a clash of cultural conceptions about the nature of the sport – and not, I stress a clash between the footballers themselves, because most British players I’ve heard on the subject this week have said they’d do the same thing. The clash is largely among the audience, where the issue seems to have rather neatly split the consensus. It remains part of the World Cup’s greatness that it mixes such a large and diverse audience together, and the controversy is just part of the deal.

The Frank Swift quote comes from his autobiography “Football From The Gaolmouth”, Sporting Handbooks Ltd, 1948;
The Sammy Lee story is taken from “Morbo, The Story of Spanish Football” by Phil Ball, WSC Books 2003.