Life isn’t fair and cheats often prosper. How unpalatable such statements are doesn’t alter how true they are, and it may be especially galling for the supporters of Mansfield Town that the valiant efforts of their team this afternoon will be overshadowed by a predictable row over the handled goal that eventually won a tumultuous FA Cup Third Round match for Liverpool this afternoon. Having conceded an early goal to debutant Daniel Sturridge, it might have been easy for the Blue Square Bet Premier side to have buckled and folded all together, but they kept their calm and put in a performance that is worthy of greater praise than it is likely to receive. Indeed, had their goal come ten minutes earlier, there is every chance that we would be talking about a replay and asking the question of how Liverpool had managed to fail to beat a non-league side club in the FA Cup.

The headlines tomorrow morning, however, will all be about Luis Suarez, whose appearance from the substitutes bench and subsequent handled goal gave Liverpool a gap which proved to be too great for Mansfield Town to be able to bridge. In order to be able to properly assess whether this goal should have stood or not, we are charged with the tortuous task of referring back not only to FIFA’s Laws of The Game, but also to their accompanying document, The FIFA Interpretation of the Laws of the Game. Under Law Twelve, “A direct free-kick is awarded to the opposing team if… a player handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).” So far, so vague, but The FIFA Interpretation of the Laws of the Game offers a little more clarity on what is actually meant by this. According to FIFA’s own interpretation of Law Twelve:

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following into consideration:

  • the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
  • the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
  • the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement
  • touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement
  • hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement

And herein lays a significant problem with the laws of the game. Anybody watching this Suarez incident can choose to interpret it whichever they wish to, and in these heavily partisan times this interpretation will be primarily based upon our preconception of the player. Those that will defend anything and everything that he does could argue that he was trying to pull his arm away from the ball at the moment that it hit it. Those that despise him might well interpret his arm movement as quite clearly controlling the ball. FIFA wish for it to be that referees have “discretion” over what is and isn’t awarded depending on the specific circumstances of any particular incident. The problem with this, however, is that it leads to inevitable grey areas, and this is where the whole conversation becomes a little intractable. FIFA could amend the Laws of the Game tomorrow to remove any cause for doubt over what does and doesn’t constitute handball, but within a matter of hours the media and supporters – including, most likely, some of the very same supporters who had previously been howling for consistency a day earlier – would be complaining that referees had been robbed of a proportion of their authority, and that their right to make “common sense” decisions had been taken away.

Ultimately, though, at least in terms of the technicalities of the decision, the responsibility to spot such decisions lays solely with the referee. That this particular handball seemed so clear-cut makes it all the more surprising that a referee and linesman between them could both have failed to see it – presuming, that is, that they didn’t see it rather than interpreting what happened as in some way an accident. There will be those who will suggest that such incidents are further proof that the future of officiating, if it is to be more consistent, lays in the increased use of video technology, but this could only happen with the removal of any rules which allow for referees interpreting the laws of the game. Footballers taking liberties in order to seek the most slender of advantages is as old as the game itself is. Considering all of this, it seems that we are stuck with our unsatisfactory lot, and the only solace that we can probably take from this is the self-evident truth that life, unfortunately, is not fair.

Where Suarez lets himself down time and again, however, in his reaction to the incidents in which he has become embroiled. His last minute deliberate handball for Uruguay against Ghana in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup was, perhaps, something that we might expect many players to do, whether we agree with the morals of it or not. What angered many people at that time, however, was his joyful reaction to the subsequent penalty kick being missed. It has been noted that the kissing of his wrist is a common celebration for him to carry out after scoring a goal, but the question of whether he has so little presence of mind to not even stop and think, “Perhaps, considering what has just happened, kissing my wrist might not be the wisest thing to do on this occasion” seems like a valid one to ask. Ultimately, his reputation as a player – and there is little doubting that he is a brilliant player – is tarnished by such actions, and these are actions that he chooses to make. He does himself, and by extension the club that he represents, no favours by doing this sort of thing.

This afternoon’s match had started with a magnificent gesture from Mansfield Town Football Club, in marking ninety-six of the seats at Field Mill with the names of those that died in the Hillsborough disaster, but it will likely be remembered for the handball which marked Liverpool’s second goal and Suarez’s immediate reaction to it. And further lost in all of this controversy will likely be a magnificent performance from Mansfield Town, which defied their mid-table performance in the fifth division of English football and stretched Liverpool to the absolute limit. They deserve absolute credit for a performance of courage, stamina and no little determination which was far beyond what many believed they might be capable of this afternoon, and the sense of hurt that the club and its supporters will undoubtedly feel this evening will only be partially ameliorated by the financial reward that they will receive for their endeavours in this year’s competition and the sense of pride that they can take from their team’s performance. That, however, is modern football – warts and all.

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