4 October ~ Ever keen to find the smallest reason to feel good about themselves, the English public and media love to vilify a South American football player when the opportunity arises. This past week we have heard the sound of collective booing aimed at Manchester City's Carlos Tévez, for failing to take orders from his boss (no greater crime for Englishmen who've willingly kowtowed to a titled aristocracy for centuries), and at Liverpool's Luis Suárez, for making the most of a semi-legal challenge from Jack Rodwell. Not only are these foreign lads over here earning vast amounts of cash, it seems that they also act in their own best interests, or even the interests of their team. Shocking.
It's easy to pick on Suárez, because we always remember him as the Uruguayan villain who last year denied the African continent its first-ever team in a World Cup semi-final. Our moral daggers were never sharper than when we condemned him for openly celebrating Ghana's failure to convert the last-minute penalty he had caused by handling the ball on the line to prevent a certain winner. But imagine the heroic headlines if that had been Stevie G or brave Frank Lampard raising a hand and taking the bloody red card of sacrifice for the sake of their beloved homeland.
Suárez's action did not make him a cheat. He merely used the laws of the game to his advantage. Like any professional, he does what it takes to get results. Our pseudo-ethical pontificating is not going to change that, because any game played for money pretty much forfeits the moral high ground. The condemnations from the press box and the ex-pros in the gantry are just so much hypocritical wind. Played for free back in the day, did you? Never tugged a shirt, or claimed a corner-kick when the ball had come off you and not your opponent? Never committed a "smart" tactical foul?
That's not to say we can't do something to curb football's tiresome gamesmanship and rife manipulation, even while accepting that 19th century-style Corinthian behaviour is an ideal that's been dead and buried for well over a hundred years. Take the Suárez handball, for example. It would need just one adjustment to the laws to prevent this happening at any level of football. Simply award a goal if, in the opinion of the referee, a shot bound for goal is illegally prevented from crossing the line.
The player should still be red carded if he or she is deemed to have acted with the deliberate intent of preventing the goal. If there is any doubt (and with the help of a linesman and a penalty area referee, there are three pairs of eyes to make a decision), then the player should be yellow carded instead. So another player who handled on the line against Ghana at the 2010 World Cup, Australia's Harry Kewell, would have been given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to play on.
Another example – Major League Soccer this season started imposed fines on its players for diving, especially in cases where a referee was fooled into giving a penalty. But like Suárez's handball, many of the dives still paid off in terms of points won, and players will have been happy to pay the fine in return for the better result. That's simple economics. So why not retroactively cancel any resultant goal and adjust the scoreline, as well as fining and heavily suspending the player? If the action didn't affect the result in terms of points won, dock the offending team a point or three. If television replays are already being used post-game by the league to determine a player's guilt, why should the innocent party, the defending team, not benefit too?
Suárez, to keep returning to our example, is not a South American cheat. Like him or not, he is a modern sportsman, using all the means at his disposal to achieve commercial success, just like thousands of other professional players. These players exploit weak laws, while FIFA remains impotent, as ever too terrified of radical change to fix the game for the better. Award goals when the ball hasn't crossed the line? Change scores after the final whistle? But we've never done that before, so we can't possibly start now! And that's why you and I get to feel superior by shouting out "Cheat!" Ian Plenderleith