When is cheating not cheating?
The answer apparently is when the act of cheating is qualified
by a) what the commercial stakes are, and b) what anyone else would have done
in the circumstances.
The question arises because a Liverpool player named
Luis Suarez handled the ball, apparently deliberately, and unseen by the
referee or linesman, before tapping it into the net in a Football Association
cup tie against Mansfield
Town, the non-league home
team. Suarez’s goal proved to be the crucial
difference in a match that Liverpool won by
two goals to one.
Liverpool’s manager was at pains to support his
player, claiming the handball was accidental.
What he didn’t say, because it didn’t need saying, was that his team’s
win was a relief, obviating the need for a tiresome, not to say embarrassing, replay. Mansfield’s
manager, on the other hand, was understandably outraged, because a second match
at Liverpool, in front of a huge crowd, would
have delivered a financial bonanza for his club.
What was less comprehensible, perhaps, was the
outpouring of support in the press for Suarez, who has, as the police would
say, ‘a bit of previous’ in matters of sporting controversy involving
hands. (He saved a goal with his hands playing
for Uruguay in a World Cup match
and refused to shake the hand of an opponent who had accused him of racial
abuse.) The gist of the arguments by his
apologists was that anyone in a similar position, that is immediately in front
of the goal with no chance of reaching the ball with his feet, would have done
exactly the same thing.
Some word definitions go through subtle changes over
the years. Cheating evidently is one of
them, at least as far as football is concerned, even though the dictionaries
seem perfectly clear on the matter. “To deceive, defraud or impose upon”
doesn’t sound like a definition that might have migrated from something entirely
different, nor does it allow for any kind of circumstantial exception.
A television commentator, Jon Champion, from the ESPN
sports network, said so loud and clear on air. “That, I’m afraid, is the work
of a cheat.” Far from endorsing this
view, his employer promptly reprimanded him for his comment, and followed up
with a weasel-worded statement. “We take our responsibility to deliver the
highest standards of coverage to our viewers.
ESPN’s editorial policy is for commentators to be unbiased and honest,
to call things as they see them.”
Obviously, ESPN’s commentators can call things as they
see them, so long as it doesn’t offend the network’s paymasters, which in this
instance included a powerful Premier League franchise.
“What should Suarez have done?” a friend asked me.
“Signaled to the referee that the goal was invalid,”
was my response, one that elicited a roar of laughter, and a ‘charge’ of
Well, naïve I may be, but not to the extent of
believing that our friend Suarez was the kind of chap who would stoop so low as
to deprive his team of a victory. But I
pause to imagine wistfully what an enormous public relations coup it would have
been for Liverpool, and for the perpetually tarnished
image of English football, if he’d done just that. Yes, of course it is wishful thinking, but
wishful thinking is what separates a civilized society from the baying mob on
the stadium terraces that prefers not to do any thinking at all.
The Suarez ‘goal’ is a minor incident – a
‘controversy’, as the tabloid like to call them – and hardly a surprising one. But it adds to the ever-growing roster of acts
of gentlemanly conduct that bedevils football – and, to be fair, many other
sports – and erodes the standards of behaviour that we ought to hold precious.
“Dream on,” I hear you muttering. And so I shall.