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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

I Walk the Line

The talking point of the third round of the FA Cup has been Luis Suarez's handball against Mansfield Town, with two denied penalty claims against Liverpool players for handling rubbing salt into the wound. Opinion has been divided. The match commentator, John Champion, has been reprimanded for calling Suarez a cheat, though oddly enough his employer, ESPN, have claimed that their "editorial policy is for commentators to be unbiased and honest, to call things as they see them". Given that is what Champion did, why the ticking-off?

In the ITV highlights programme Gordon Strachan employed a tortuous analogy about parking tickets in order to say that everyone is entitled to get away with minor offences. Suarez clearly gained an advantage, and while he may not have run half the length of the pitch with a single-minded determination to punch the ball into the net, he didn't simply stop playing when he realised he'd handled. The standard justification for this is to "play to the whistle": if the referee hasn't stopped the game, then the advantage is there for you to take. It's not quite as morally adrift as "I was only following orders", but it operates without an ethical foundation: if the crime wasn't spotted, then no crime took place. Alan Hansen even goes so far as to claim that no professional could be expected to voluntarily confess an infringement, though he undermines his own case by mentioning Robbie Fowler's on-pitch admission during a match against Arsenal in 1997 that he'd dived to win a penalty. Hansen then wheels out one of the classic cliches employed on these occasions: "where do you draw the line?" He asks if fans outraged by Suarez will "tell their own side next weekend to admit every handball, every shirt tug and every wrongly flagged offside that benefits their own team?", though this ignores the crucial presence of a goal in the equation.

The same cliche, in a slightly different form, is found in Cameron Sharpe's comment: "But if winning is the sole concern when it comes to football matches and the manner of achieving it is irrelevant, surely we tread a dangerous line." Methinks he hasn't seen Corinithian Casuals play much of late. Sharpe considers the indulgent treatment of Suarez hypocritical compared to the monstering Thierry Henry got over the handball that led to Ireland losing the World Cup play-off against France in 2009. The real difference is that there are a lot more Liverpool fans than supporters of Mansfield around, just as there were many more part-time fans of Ireland in 2009 (the handball incident caused little comment outside Ireland and the UK). The outrage (or lack of same) reflects partisan support.

The focus on Suarez's ethics is irrelevant, though given his previous exploits (the racist jibes at Patrice Evra and his handball against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup) you can see why this is catnip for journalists and talk-radio. There is no ethical "line" between lesser and greater infringements, between what a referee decides to ignore or penalise. The real line is between unsporting behaviour (which Suarez's use of the hand qualifies as) and simple bad luck. In other words, between human volition and arbitrary fate. In 1999, Arsenal offered to replay a fifth round FA Cup tie with Sheffield United because the winning goal had been scored after Kanu picked up the ball from a United throw-in and played on. The lanky Nigerian had failed to appreciate that the ball was deliberately put out of play to allow an injured United player treatment and that convention, though not the laws of the game, required possession to be returned to the opposition. This was an "honest mistake", though as I recall from the game, Marc Overmars, who scored from Kanu's cross, was more clearly playing to the whistle.

According to Arsene Wenger, the justification for the replay (which Arsenal won) was that "We feel that we didn't win the game like we want to win our games". The sympathy for the Blades reflected their misfortune, not opprobrium for cheating by Arsenal. Liverpool will not have to offer Mansfield Town a replay because most people consider that they have been the recipients of good fortune, that they have "got away with it", rather than that Mansfield Town have been the victims of outrageous misfortune. That said, If I were Luis Suarez, I'd make sure I never get caught parking illegally.

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