One image that will linger in the mind long after one of the remaining teams hold the 2010 football world cup aloft next sunday, will be that of Uruguay's prolific striker Luiz Suarez, gleefully sitting on the shoulders of one of his colleagues, being paraded around the ground after his team's infamous quarterfinal victory, call it escape if you will, against Ghana. The once mighty South Americans had had just won a hard fought penalty shootout against the lone African team in the competition, after being outplayed on the field for most of the game in regular and extra time.
Of course this was not an ordinary victory by penalties. Almost everyone who watched the match would agree that Ghana was defrauded of victory. Luis Suarez's hand went where it had no right to go to block what would have been a sure goal, right on the goal line. The misdemenour is magnified by the fact that this was the last shot of the game, and Ghana would have directly hurtled into the semi finals, an unprecedented achievement for the African team, had it gone in.
In sport, as in real life, cheats come in two forms. Most of them, they just manage to evade the system. They take advantage of the fact that the law has only so many eyes and ears, and that loopholes abound for them to exploit. They're bad enough! But not as bad as the ones who make a mockery of the laws that exist to keep them in check. The ones that look the system in the eye to say that it couldnt thwart their purpose if it wanted to. Uruguay's national hero Luis Suarez happens to be one of them.
He was promptly red carded. That was as much as the existing laws could do to him. So much the pity. He will miss Uruguay's semi final match up. But that can hardly be a trade-off, considering that there wouldnt have been a semi final to miss, if he hadnt acted. Ghana was awarded a penalty kick to compensate for what was the surest of goals, which they missed. The match went into penalty shoot out, and Uruguay won a game they could not have won if they played by the rules.
But of course not everyone sees it as a crime. Take Uruguay's coach Oscar Tabárez for instance. He had the most outrageous argument. "We abide by what the referee did. It could have been a mistake. Yes, he stuck his hand out, but it's not cheating. What else do you want? Is Suárez also to blame for Ghana missing the penalty? We try to be dignified, and if we lose a match, we look for the reasons for it. You shouldn't look to third parties." A-ha. So now the victims should just blame themselves. For not knowing to cheat, or for lack of opportunities to do so?
The culprit himself was much less modest. Luis Suarez now claims the rights to the 'hand of god' goal, reminiscent of that famous goal punched in by Diego Maradona in the 1986 world cup against England. He went on to own up for the incident, saying "There was no alternative but for me to do that, and when they missed the penalty, I thought: it is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament." So thats it; when all legal options expire, Take the not legal one!
Of course, the Uruguayans have a precedent too many in this world cup. Beginning with the 'hand of fraud' goal from someone who has so far been revered as one of the greatest footballers of our times, Thierry Henry, when he handled the ball, twice, before scoring the goal that helped France qualify for the world cup, breaking the hearts of a smart Irish team. Over the last two weeks, several other teams have benefitted from oversight by referees.
They say that all is fair in war. Sport is in a way war, only a war in which not everything is fair. It is war palyed to rules. And it is those rules that dignify sport, that elevate the imagination of sport lovers, and which let people look at the back pages of newspapers with a brighter smile and not the that glare over the gory details of real wars that litter the pages before, stories of blood and suffering.
Last week, sitting on a discussion panel for one of our news channels, sports commentator Harsha Bhogle agonised that today a certain amount of cheating is taken for granted in sport.
Its all a part of the game, the tough ones argue. As if sport was never a place for the not so tough! But then, how long can the line between whats fair and whats not be allowed to be blurred, for sport to retain its respect, one wonders.
Will Ghana's defeat be the final straw that forces the FIFA to sit down and rethink how rigidly its laws are to be implemented by spirit, and not just by the book? How long will it be before FIFA allows referees to be assisted by technology so that they can overcome understandable human errors? And most importantly, how long before FIFA finds a way of adequately punishing the ones who blatantly violate rules?
Ghana, footballing minnows, surely do not have to strike a penalty to claim a goal that was theirs by right. No, It really does not matter that Ghana had a chance to redeem themselves with the penalty. The moment had passed. Neither is it a valid argument that perhaps Ghana did not deserve to be in the semi's, what with the precious few goals their front-line managed to score in open play all the way to the quarters (which translates into, Ghana could have scored in the 120 minutes before the incident). What matters is that they will be going home, with almost everyone convinced that they were robbed of the chance to make history. What matters is that the legendary olympic motto of 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' can be circumvented, and still games can be won.
In the semi finals of the 2003 cricket world cup, Australian vice captain Adam Gilchrist did something unheard untill then. Early in the match, when he had nicked the ball to a Sri Lankan fielder, he declared himself out and walked back to the pavillion, even though the umpire had not seen the contact between bat and ball. It was heralded as a new era of self censorship that would help clean up sport. But the idea didn't really catch up. Even Gilchrist subsequently stopped 'walking'.
Self censorship just won't work. But that shouldn't stop sporting authorities from stepping in and righting gross wrongs. And righting means righting adequately. Else, the whole purpose of sport would be defeated. God Forbid!