Sunday, 4 July 2010

The internet's ten thousandth Suarez post.

This isn't really analytical enough to go on Minus, but here are my thoughts on the Suarez handball incident.

I assume Suarez will be given a discretionary ban for his cynical gamesmanship. Apparently his turning to celebrate while heading to the tunnel was also egregious and beyond the pale - well Christ, I think if I'd just committed a mass nun murder I'd stop and cheer and run around a bit if my country had just got to a World Cup semi-final...

I wouldn't normally have time for the 'noble hero falling on own sword' thing - but when you bear in mind that the free-kick that put the ball in the Uruguay box in the first place was wrongly awarded (the Ghanaian player clearly tripped over his own feet, as the not-exactly-impartial commentators acknowledged), then Suarez does start to look more like a heroic vigilante - responding to a miscarriage of justice by taking the law into his own hands, regardless of the cost to himself.

Apparently this 'last-second goal-line handball plus penalty miss' situation was discussed by FIFA after it came up in an American youth tournament over twenty years ago. They didn't change the rules then, and haven't seen fit to in the decades since. I know FIFA are a stopped clock, but on this occasion they're telling the right time.

Yes, the situation ended unfairly for Ghana. But I don't think it's worth changing the rules for these situations since they hardly ever come up. How many last-second goal-line handballs (with penalty misses) can you name, offhand? The existing punishment (red card and penalty) is fine for almost all situations. If the incident happened any earlier in the game, then Ghana would still have had time to benefit from the man advantage against a tiring, patched-up Uruguayan defence, and both sides would still have had time to launch further attacks - the whole outcome of the game wouldn't have rested on the one foul.

So yes, it's possible to benefit from a last-minute goal-line handball, as the victim team don't have time to capitalise on the situation if they miss the penalty. But it's a fairly basic principle of football that a foul should carry the same punishment whether it occurs in the first minute or the ninetieth. Even if you do decide to enact harsher measures against 'late' handballs, where do you draw the line? Injury time only? 85 minutes? 80? The whole second half? When exactly is it 'too late' for a red card to have any effect on the game?

I've heard the argument that a handball on the line should always be a red card and automatic goal (awarded as if the handling player hadn't been there and the ball had continued). I'm opposed on principle to 'autogoals'/'penalty points' (or whatever) in football - it's a starting principle of football that you have put the ball over the line. Sure, if the defender stops the ball crossing the line by foul means, then he'll be punished. But you can't start tampering with the basic idea that to score a goal, you have to put the ball in the net. It's a real slippery slope situation that I think can only serve undermine the game. And when, exactly, can you judge that the ball was definitely going in? Not all of these incidents are as easy to read as last night's.

On a similar tack, while Suarez (and his team-mate on the line) were pretty clear in their intentions last night, the intent of most handballs is difficult to judge. The rules are complicated (commentators are perpetually confused on this - as if they can't spare the time to read up on the new provisions and interpretations every season) and mistakes do happen. A wrongly awarded autogoal (or undefended penalty) for an accidental handball would be stupidly harsh. The award of a penalty gives both teams a fighting chance.

All in all, I think people are confusing what they think Suarez deserved last night, with what kind of rule they would seriously want to see applied to all future games.

It's rather like another recent tournament controversy - the prone Christian Panucci playing Holland's winning goal onside in Euro 2008. While in the context of the particular incident, the application of the rule can be seen as harsh and even unfair, the consequences of changing the rule would be worse still - defenders in extremis would simply be able to go to ground or step out of play to render an attacker offside. On the day it was unfair - but sticking with the existing rule was the right decision.

There was no grand act of larceny last night - both teams had their good spells, neither really dominated, and either of the two would have been a worthy semi-finalist. Uruguay, on top of their periodical fine play in the game, showed incredible balls to put those penalties away in a near-completely hostile stadium. Ghana - let's face it, not exactly the unsullied innocents of this tournament - have fallen to a piece of foul play, but have so far appeared to take it quite stoically.

Which is more than you can say for the one-eyed commentariat in this country. It's tempting to say that when you cast one side as villains and party-spoilers, you shouldn't complain when they decide to play the role...

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