Monday, July 05, 2010

The Pantomime Villain

A friend spent the first few days of the World Cup in Uruguay and Argentina, and was in Montevideo for the celeste's first match against France. As the friend was coming from Paris, his hosts assumed he would be supporting les bleus. He explained he wasn't because of the Thierry Henry handball, which struck the Uruguayans as unusually moralistic, as they would figure a win is a win no matter how you get it. And they should know, as their passage to South Africa was secured thanks to a goal against Costa Rica in San José that was offside.

So one shouldn't be too suprised that the Uruguayans are shrugging off the brouhaha over Luis Suárez's last-minute goal-line handball that kept his team in the tournament. The truth is any team would shrug their shoulders in the same way, though few would probably celebrate Suárez's ethically dubious action as he himself and teammate Diego Forlán have. That fits in with the Uruguayan footballing ethos of garra (guts) that combines toughness, guile and spirit. It has given the world the wonderfully redoutable teams that won two Olympic Games and two World Cups, but also, more unfortunately the disgraceful shower of cheats and cloggers that marred Mexico 86.

I'm not going to condemn Suárez too strongly. What he did was cruel and, in the spirit of the game, wrong but few fans or footballers would expect anything else of a player in that situation. It was a last-ditch effort to keep his team in the World Cup and he probably expected it to fail. Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty and Ghana missed the opportunity to become Africa's first ever semi-finalist. There has been talk about introducing a penalty goal to punish such infractions. There's something in the idea but Suárez's transgression was so egregious (committed in the very last minute) and so clear cut that it hardly serves as the best test case. How would one deal with Harry Kewell's goal-line handball in Australia's match against Ghana, which though seemingly less intentional still prevented a goal being scored? One can imagine, in the event of a rule change, goalmouth mêlées might give rise to any number of unjustly awarded goals because they ricocheted off people's arms two or three yards from the goal-line. It might seem perverse to say this but cheating to prevent a goal is a little more acceptable to me than cheating to score one, probably out of an innate defensive-mindedness. Therefore I am less inclined to condemn Suárez as I was to condemn Henry (or Maradona before him).

In any case Ghana have little to complain about. They benefited from two poor officiating decisions in the build-up to the goal (a free-kick resulting from a dive and two players were offside when the ball was flicked into the box) and the penalty was given and Suárez sent off. It's true that a chance to score does not necessarily equate with a clear goal but such are the rules for the moment. I feel sorry for Gyan, who was one of the players of the tournament and who showed immense character to return to the penalty spot two minutes later and put away his shoot-out spot-kick. But if he had scored, Suárez's handball would be a footnote in World Cup history. And Ghana should be thankful they got the penalty which is more than can be said for Arsenal when Stéphane Henchoz's handball went unpunished in the 2001 FA Cup final or the United States when Torsten Frings got away with a similar foul in the World Cup quarter-final a year later. I think that most of the outrage directed at Suárez comes from the fact he dashed an African teams' hopes. That's understandable but Ghana, fine team that they are, are well capable of craftiness when it suits them too.

Suárez is the villain of the piece now but few in Uruguay will care. He has fallen on his sword for the semi-final against the Netherlands and that will probably cost his team. But his last-ditch gamble paid off.