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Saturday, July 3, 2010

When cynicism succeeds: Deliberate handball lifts Uruguay over Ghana

Posted by on Sat, Jul 3, 2010 at 12:27 AM

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RICHMOND, VA—Let me first state that there has been much to admire about how Uruguay has played this World Cup. They are worthy semifinalists, and might yet win the tournament.

That said, events in the 120th minute of Uruguay's shootout victory over Ghana mar—in my book anyway—the South American side's passage to the final four.

The most elemental rule of soccer is that you cannot use your hands. And in particular, you cannot deliberately use your hands to stop the progress of a ball struck by the opponent. But Uruguay's resort to an extraordinarily blatant handball on the line by Luis Suarez to stop a close range header from Dominic Adiyah in the last minute of extra time, an exceptionally unsporting play, paved the way for Uruguay to progress.

In basketball, Suarez would have been called for goaltending and Ghana would have been awarded a basket. In soccer, the referee cannot just give a goal when the ball has not actually crossed the line. Instead, it was the harshest permissible punishment: a red card for Suarez, and a penalty kick.

Asamoah Gyan had a stellar tournament, but he must live forever with knowledge that he couldn't keep his effort on target, instead rattling the bar. Inevitably, Uruguay then went on to win the shootout (though to his enormous credit, Gyan stepped up to take the first Ghana penalty and buried it.)

All in all a sickening night not just for those of us (surely most of the world) who wanted Ghana to become the first African team to reach a World Cup semifinal, but also for putatively neutral fans. It's never nice to see a violation of fair play produce happy results.

Now to be sure, there is such a thing as a professional foul, a situation when a player deliberately takes a red card to stop a goal-scoring chance. I've played on teams myself where a teammate has taken a red card to stop a last minute goal. But there is something different about dragging a player down from behind to stop a one-on-one and actually using your hands to stop a ball from crossing the line. Not to say I or most other players (amateur or professional) wouldn't have done the same in Suarez's shoes.

Suarez simply took advantage of a flaw in the rules. Even more troubling, it's a flaw in the rules that probably should not be fixed. If referees were given authority to award goals on handballs, it would open up a Pandora's Box of complications, and created another level of judgment (how do we know a ball really would have crossed the line? What about a handball 6 yards out that stops a goal, should the ref be able to give a goal in that situation?)

So this is a problem for which there is likely no solution. That doesn't make any less unjust from a sporting perspective, or less cruel from Ghana's point of view. Most conceptions of justice involve a fitting correspondence between good or bad actions and good or bad consequences—that is, people getting what they deserve.

What Ghana deserved was to have scored a second goal and made the semifinal. Conversely, Uruguay has been rewarded, not penalized, for breaking the rules and violating the spirit of the game.

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