Friday, July 2, 2010

Doesn't Anybody Care?

Update 7/3/10, 9:15 AM: Good news. They're doing something at least. FIFA is considering suspending Suarez for the final if Uruguay makes it. Not enough, as it doesn't help Ghana and if Uruguay doesn't make it, it won't matter at all, but at least it's something.

Unless you've spent the last few weeks in a coma, you're aware that the World Cup is into the Quarterfinals stage, with the first two matches having been played today. Netherlands shocked Brazil in the early game, and the crowd favorite, Ghana, was beaten by the favored Uruguay in the late one. While some Americans may have harbored a grudge against Ghana, I, along with many others, was pulling for the sentimental choice. Therefore, the manner in which the game was decided was, to put it gently, very frustrating for me.

In stoppage time of extra time, with the score tied at 1, Ghana had a golden opportunity to score. Their first shot from point-blank range was blocked by a quick-footed Uruguayan player, but Ghana controlled the rebound and immediately tried again. This time, that same player, Luis Suarez, intentionally lifted both his hands over his head and swatted the ball away, blocking what would have been the game-winning goal. Instead, Ghana was awarded a penalty kick, Suarez was given a red card, and the sure-footed Asamoah Gyan wound up missing, sending the game to a penalty kick shootout where Ghana would eventually lose.

Apparently, no else cares that someone blatantly cheated. No one else cares that this flagrant act prevented Ghana from surely advancing to the semifinals of the World Cup, which would have been the first time any African nation had ever accomplished that feat. Oh, people feel bad for Ghana, because they had a penalty kick to win the game with just minutes remaining. But no one thinks they should have gone through. They didn't make the penalty kick; that was their shot to get through, they say.

In fact, the announcers doing the highlights on ESPN seemingly pitied Suarez, pointing out how he was crying in the tunnel as Gyan lined up for the penalty kick. Shouldn't they be worried about Ghana's players, and how they, quite literally, outscored their opponent but somehow lost?

You say they didn't outscore them. I say they did. Unless the laws of physics suddenly chaned, that ball was, with 100% certainty, going to be a goal had Suarez not knocked it away with his hands. A penalty kick and red card simply do not compensate for that. Sure, players in the World Cup make penalty kicks at an 84% clip--that's pretty darn high, but it's not 100%.

It's not bad officiating, for once. The referee did all he could under the rules--he gave Suarez a red card, eliminating him from this match and the next, and gave Ghana a penalty kick. But how is that right? Shouldn't the referee be allowed to simply say the goal counts? In what other sport does this happen? If, in baseball, a catcher tackled a runner to prevent him from scoring and then held him there to allow another player to tag him, would the runner be sent back to third as if we didn't know what would have happened if the catcher hadn't cheated? In basketball, if a ball is going through the hoop and a player bats it away, does the offense get free throws? In football, if a defense commits a penalty, is the penalty enforced in lieu of the play even if the offense gets a preferable result from the play itself?

No, no, and no. In any other sport, if we know what would have happened anyways and it is a better result for the cheated-upon party, we do one of two things: we either ignore the infraction and give the preferred result, or we give the preferred result and the penalty. If a player goaltends in basketball, the preferred result of a basket is given. If a player commits unnecessary roughness in football, the play is allowed plus a 15-yard penalty. There is no situation, when we know for sure what would have happened, where only the penalty is awarded.

In soccer, this is how they do it. We know for sure the goal would have been scored. But instead, they make Ghana try again. You can't, therefore, blame Suarez from a logical point of view. Morally, you can, because he cheated. But logically, there is no disincentive to prevent him throwing his hand up there to stop the ball. He gets a red card and will have to miss the rest of this match and the next one. Well, if he lets the ball in, there won't be a next match and the rest of this one is inconsequential. Ghana gets a penalty kick. Well, that actually sounds like an incentive. Instead of the 100% chance of a goal being scored, Ghana's chances drop to 84%.

There needs to be a significant disincentive for this. Why not allow referees to award a goal when they are absolutely sure one would have been scored if not for a flagrant act of cheating such as this one? I know people will argue that more subjectivity from the referees will only exacerbate the officiating problems, but this would be a VERY rare occurrence, and would hopefully never actually need to be used because of the disincentive it provides. If you want to make it even stronger, why not, if the goal was sure to have been scored, count it AND allow a penalty kick? I guarantee you'll never see a player do what Suarez did ever again if that were the rule.

That will never happen though. And not even because people don't want to allow the referees to be more subjective. It won't happen because nobody even cares. Nobody is pointing out that, save a cheating hand, Ghana actually won the game and yet didn't advance. Everyone thinks justice was served with the penalty kick opportunity. Not even anyone on the Ghanaian side thinks they were shafted. How can it be that nobody cares?

Ghana scored 2 goals. Uruguay scored 1. And yet Uruguay has moved on to play the Netherlands in the World Cup semifinal. Something needs to be changed.


  1. I was angry that Ghana lost that game. I wanted to see an African nation advance to the semifinals for the first time. On the same hand it sucks that all the major power nations do so well- USA, England, Spain, France, Germany. Often I feel that the World Cup (and other international sporting events) just perpetuate the hegemony of the Western world.

    I agree that in a way, as the rules stand now, they are almost incentivizing getting a red card. Even though Suarez cannot play in the next game, his red card made no difference for this game (overtime was nearly over anyway). Uruguay almost literally won the game with a hand ball! Are you sure Ghanans (Ghanians?) dammit spellcheck don't feel cheated?

    I don't think the solutions you suggested would be met with much appreciation though, for the reason you brought up. Also... I wouldnt guarantee that there would not be a hand ball ever again. If, in four years, a defender was standing that close to the goal, balancing on the white line, and a mass of soccer players were in front of him, and in the frenzy, the ball came rushing from overhead, he may reach out with his hand to block it. Part of his movement might be purely desperation and also semi-instinctual, probably with no thought behind it.

    Instead, the penalty kicks at the end should be completely rethought. Instead of giving each country 5 kicks, they should get a different number based on how many violations each team committed during the game. This way, they are truly "penalty" kicks. If Ghana was awarded more than 5 tries, and Uruguay less than 5 tries, they might have won the game. This also disincentivizes getting a red card.

  2. Here's one example of experienced soccer players with no stake in the game either way expressing how little they care:

    I am not really sure how Ghanains feel, since I have not read anything from Ghana--be it blog or newspaper or whatnot--but there hasn't been a story about it on ESPN or any other major sports site, so the team/soccer organization can't be making too big a fuss.

    I don't mean to say it would never happen again; that was hyperbole. But the huge incentive not to do it would make it even rarer. And part of it may have been instinct, but that still needs to be punished. The incentive will also help players unlearn that instinct.

    Your idea about awarding more or fewer penalty kicks is good in theory, but I don't think it would work that well. If you want to base it on fouls, that gets really messy, because so many calls are missed and so many bad calls are made. Even if you only consider cards, there are still very often bad mistakes made in awarding them, and you wouldn't want that to have an extra effect. And then if you say only red cards affect the number of penalty kicks, why not just do something at the time of the infraction, since there is usually zero or one in a game?


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