The hand of god, revisited.

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez cheated in order for his team to beat Ghana in the Wold Cup quarter final. Of this there can be no doubt, for Suarez admitted as much in boasting that his was the new “hand of God”. There can also be no doubt that the referee did the right thing, according to the rules of the game. We can however doubt the rules themselves.

But there are some red herrings in the responses I’ve encountered to Suarez’s actions. First, it’s not obvious that he should be cast as a villain in this case. If we were being honest, many of us might admit that we would prefer that members of our own team sacrificed themselves in this way in similar situations. The rules of the game, as they currently stand, reward such sacrifices. If Siphiwe Tshabalala could have won South Africa the game against Uruguay by doing a Suarez, we might admire his honesty, yet perhaps regret it in equal measure.

It would also have been interesting to observe the reactions, particularly in South Africa, if the situation had been reversed and a Ghanaian player was the one to commit the intentional foul. It’s certainly possible that the lamentable AfriGhana phenomenon has clouded some people’s reactions to this. I certainly don’t recall any appeals for the introduction of a “penalty goal”, as in rugby, when Harry Kewell was sent off for the same offence in Australia’s last group game, or when the German goalkeeper went along with the officials in claiming that Lampard’s goal hadn’t crossed the goal-line.

There is an obvious difference between the Suarez scenario and these other examples, and that is of course that the Ghanaian penalty resulting from Suarez’s handball was the last kick of extra time – meaning that Ghana would have no opportunity to exploit their numerical advantage on the pitch after the Uruguayan player was sent off. And what this difference indicates is that there may not be any “one size fits all” remedy to the type of cheating exhibited by Suarez.

Any rule distinctions based on time would be arbitrary. A rule stipulating that a penalty goal be awarded – in cases where a certain goal is prevented by a handball on the line during the last few (how many?) minutes of the match – presents a slippery slope problem, as the cheating could have result-changing impact in the first, as well as the 94th minute. So if we are to entertain the idea of penalty goals, this measure would need to be applied at any point in the game.

If so, then we need to resolve which offences merit the award of a penalty goal. Staying with the example of goal-saving handballs on the goalline, intent would surely need to matter. The Harry Kewell case shows how intent can be difficult to spot – his initial arm movements are certainly towards the ball, and perhaps instinctive, but he is clearly moving his arms back to the side of his body by the time the ball strikes him. In fact, the only way Kewell could have avoided the ball striking him on the arm would have been to hold his arms above his head.

In the split-second that the officials have to make a judgement on these matters, it would be easy to believe that Kewell’s handball was intentional, and to award a penalty goal. But if it was unintentional, and the Australian team loses as a consequence, the cries of injustice would be no less merited than those we are currently hearing regarding Ghana. It’s a lose-lose situation for FIFA, in that there is no way to ensure that the judgement of an official is certain to be correct. Instead, what we hope for is that FIFA do their best to ensure fairness.

One way of getting closer to this goal is of course through the introduction of technological assistance. And while this would certainly help in some cases, such as detecting whether a ball crossed the line, or whether a player was “simulating” in order to win a penalty kick, it might not be as useful for detecting intent in cases like that of Suarez, in that such cases are not always as blatant as this example is. Most of the time, numerous replays would be required, and this would introduce significant delays in game-play, as well as potentially result in momentum shifts that alter the eventual outcome.

This is perhaps why FIFA are trying to keep things simple. The basic premise of a football match is that you are awarded a goal when the ball crosses the goal-line, as a result of your team’s attacking play outweighing the defensive efforts of the opposition. While the introduction of a penalty goal runs counter to that basic rule, this would be acceptable if it didn’t come with significant inefficiencies of its own – the delays, momentum shifts, and increasing reliance on the subjective opinions of officials – which could result in more rather than less injustice.

Cases like the Uruguay versus Ghana match are exceptionally rare, and it’s never sensible to drive policy or rules based on the exceptional cases. Cheating is certainly a problem for football, mostly because the typically low scores in football matches incentivise cheating – the margin between winning and losing is most often just one goal, which means that players are encouraged to do more to get that one goal, even if that involves cheating.

So instead of tweaking rules in ways which might have unintended consequences, let us rather tackle the problem at its root, and effectively crack down on cheating in football. Uruguay have already lost their top scorer for the semi-final match, but the penalty could (and should) be far more severe. For example, Suarez could be banned from any competition – club and international – for a significant number of matches, and Uruguay forced to withhold his match fees.

Identifying which players merit such penalties can be accomplished by disciplinary panels with access to replays, following the completion of a match, and before that player is scheduled to play again. There would also be time for appeals against the decisions of this panel, in cases where justice does not appear to have been served. But most importantly, significant penalties such as long-term bans would make cheating a far less attractive proposition for a player.

Nothing can of course be done right now, and none of this is any consolation to Ghana or its supporters. But what we can perhaps do is prevent this from happening again, without fundamentally changing the structure of the beautiful game.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.