Amid more debate over Luis Suarez Ian Doyle wonders if sportsmanship is dead
NEW YEAR, same old story. Barely a week into 2013, and already familiar subjects are at the epicentre of familiar talking points.
Luis Suarez, cheating and the honesty of footballers shot to the forefront of public consciousness once again at the weekend after Liverpool’s FA Cup third round tie at non-league Mansfield Town.
The incident in question surrounded the second goal for Brendan Rodgers’ side, when the ball clearly struck Suarez on the right hand before rolling over the line for what ultimately proved the deciding goal in a 2-1 triumph for the visitors.
Whether it was intentional or not could be argued vociferously on either side. As could the debate over whether the officials actually saw the infringement.
The most pressing question, though, has become: should Suarez have owned up to the infringement?
Suarez, of course, is no stranger to controversy. And he has proven somewhat handy in the past, most infamously in the World Cup quarter-final against Ghana in 2010 when his last-minute handball conceded a penalty from which the Africans missed and allowed Uruguay the opportunity to later progress following a spot-kick shootout.
Even then, Suarez split opinion between those who considered it a blatant piece of cheating or those who merely thought he had taken one for the team (it is often conveniently overlooked the striker was sent off and sat out the semi-final through suspension, and that Ghana still had to miss the penalty).
It wasn’t any different to Michael Ballack’s cynical foul in the semi-final against South Korea eight years earlier that safeguarded Germany’s place in the final but cost him his place in the showpiece.
ESPN clearly thought Jon Champion had overstepped the mark by declaring Suarez a “cheat” during live coverage of Sunday’s match, having a quiet word with their commentator which they, no doubt to deflect the barrage of criticism the broadcaster had attracted from Liverpool supporters, then also decided to make public.
Fair play and football have become uneasy bedfellows in recent years. Certainly, gone are the days of the old Corinthian spirit, the desperation to win and the vast financial rewards that often come with such triumphs prompting an increasing number to bend the rules, whether it be through sly fouls, sneaky diving or, in the terms of clubs themselves, blatant manipulation of the regulations.
For many, last summer’s glorious Olympics painted footballers in a bad light, the country swept up in the communal spirit of sportsmen and women who were simply trying their best.
But it wasn’t all above board. A Belarusian shot putter was stripped of a goal medal for doping, four badminton teams were kicked out for deliberately trying to lose and, shock horror, a British cyclist – at least initially before later wildly backpedalling – admitted to crashing on purpose to earn Team GB another crack in a team sprint qualifying heat after a particularly poor start.
Indeed, cycling, rocketing in popularity thanks to the exploits of Bradley Wiggins, will take years to overcome the Lance Armstrong scandal that broke last year.
There is one comparison between the Armstrong and Suarez situations, albeit on an inexorably smaller scale.
Given the weight of evidence, people are now urging Armstrong to come clean; many of the television observers who saw the ball strike Suarez’s hand are wondering why the Uruguayan hasn’t done likewise.
It has been done before. Miroslav Klose admitted to scoring with his hand for Lazio in Serie A last year, leading to the referee chalking off the goal.
But such honesty was maybe ingrained. For a while, there was a ruling in Germany’s Bundesliga where referees would ask players if they handled the ball. If they admitted to doing so, the goal was ruled out. If he denied doing it, and video evidence suggested otherwise, he would be banned.
It would take a change of the Football Association’s disciplinary procedure for that to happen here.
However, it is telling that those within the game have almost universally jumped to the defence of Suarez – including those in opposition at the weekend.
“I don't think you can call him a cheat,” says Mansfield goalkeeper Marriott. “I know people have done that in the past.
“He has probably done what every striker would do from Sunday football upwards, he has just put his hand out instinctively and has carried on.”
Stags manager Paul Cox adds: “I don't think Suarez did anything wrong. I thought it was instinctive centre forward play, and really I don't think anyone would blame him for that.
“The body language of the players told you it was handball. He didn't celebrate and casually smashed it into the net as if to say he'd just handled it, and the reactions of our players showed the referee what had happened too.
“But the officials missed it. You can't blame Suarez for that. He did what all strikers should do.”
And there’s the rub. Suarez undoubtedly knew it was a handball. But is it really bad sportsmanship not to own up to something?
After all, players defending a set-piece don’t prompt the referee to give a penalty when they tug on the shirts of their opponents. And how many times do players appeal for throw-ins and corners that quite patently aren’t theirs?
Such attempts to gain an advantage, no matter how small, are all part of the game.
“It is not Luis’s job to say it was handball,” says Liverpool manager Rodgers. And he’s right.
It’s down to the referee and his myriad assistants to make the correct calls. Yes, at times they aren’t helped by players intent on conning their way to victory. But when there is an oversight as blatant as that on Sunday, is the onus then on Suarez or indeed any other player to do their jobs for them?
“Officials are human beings,” says Cox. “But when you look at the way so much is at stake these days, games are won and lost on decisions like that, then maybe there is an argument for technology.”
That, though, is another debate entirely.