In any team sport, a team has to accomplish a specific objective to score points. In basketball, for example, one has to put the ball in the basket in order to score. Basketball, however, might be the only team sport in which the rules allow points to be awarded in the event a team does not achieve the objective.
(All you Baltimore Ravens who want to use this video as an argument, please sit down. We’re talking about hard-coded rules, not judgment calls, and if this World Cup has proven anything, it’s that judgment calls work both ways, often to devastating effect.)
Of course, a basketball player has to break a specific rule — in this case, goal tending — in order for the other team to be awarded the points. This rule exists in part to allow a more offensive game and to give both teams a fair opportunity to score.
Football codes don’t have a rule like this. If a defender illegally stops a player from scoring, the player and team are penalized, but points are not awarded. The onus is still on the offensive team to score. Period. That is simply how football works.
Let me set out an example for you:
The Ravens are leading the New England Patriots by 4 with just a few seconds left on the clock. The Pats are on the Ravens’ 8-yard line and have one play left. Brady drops back, sees Randy Moss open in the end zone and passes to him. Ed Reed, meanwhile, realizes he’s caught out of position, and he can’t make a play on the ball. So Reed grabs Moss and pulls him away from the pass as time expires.
The ref throws the flag. Of course, he does. That’s pass interference. Ed Reed prevented the touchdown illegally. The touchdown, however, is not awarded automatically. By rule, the ball is placed on the 1-yard line, and the Pats will get one more play, since the game cannot end on a defensive penalty. However, the Pats still have to score the touchdown. If the Ravens stuff them on the last play, the game is over, the Ravens win.
Did Ed Reed break a rule in order to help his team win? Yes. He committed pass interference and was penalized for it. The rules of the game, however, allow for this, just as the rules of basketball allow a team to foul its opponent constantly at the end of the game in order to get the ball back and try to erase a deficit. Points aren’t awarded for fouls, though; you have to make your free throws. Thus, if you know a team struggles at the free throw line, tactical fouling becomes a legitimate strategy in order to win.
Which brings us to Luis Suarez, who caused something of an uproar yesterday.
With Uruguay and Ghana tied at 1-1 in the 121st minute, the Uruguayan striker illegally stopped Ghana from scoring a goal by slapping it away. He’s not the goalkeeper, so he can’t do that. Like Ed Reed in our example above, Suarez was properly penalized as the rules stipulated — he was shown a straight red card and sent off. By those same rules, however, the goal is not given automatically. Ghana still has to put the ball in the net.
They did not. Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty kick, and extra time ended at 1-1. Uruguay won the game on penalties and advanced to the semifinals.
Some have reacted with outrage to what Suarez did. They claim he’s a filthy cheat, just like Thierry Henry, and that he should be ashamed of himself. They also claim that Uruguay should not be in the semifinals because of this.
Here’s the thing, though — unlike that France v. Ireland game, the laws of the game worked exactly as written here. Suarez was properly punished for his handball (red card and suspension), just as Reed was penalized for his pass interference in our example above. This was, in essence, a tactical foul — a deliberate breaking of a rule in order to help your team try and win a game.
So really, if you have no issue with basketball players fouling at the end of a game in order to try and win it, you shouldn’t have any issue with what Luis Suarez did here. Tactical fouling exists to give your team an opportunity to win when no other option is available. So you commit those fouls, because you want to win. Is it cynical? Yes. Is it cheating? No. You do what you have to do within the rules of the game in order to win the game.
Perhaps because of Henry’s handball is so fresh in our minds, Suarez’ handball is skewing our sense of justice. The difference is that in the case of Henry, justice was not served. France was allowed to commit a clear violation due to officiating incompetence, and Ireland was given no recourse. This is why the NFL has instant replay — to give teams recourse in case the officials appear to make the wrong decision.
There were no wrong decisions at the end of the Uruguay v. Ghana game. Suarez accepted his punishment as the rules stipulated. There was simply the tactical foul and, sadly for Ghana, Gyan’s blown penalty kick. Had Gyan converted, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this. Ghana had the opportunity to win the game after the penalty was committed, and there’s nothing really unjust about that.
Tactical fouling is simply part of football, as it is part of nearly every sport. This is how it should be, too. We should not get into the habit of simply awarding one team the game every time the other team breaks the rules, or else we open our games up to all sorts of ugly unintended consequences. Victory needs to be earned in our games.