Football and the Cheating Problem

Weirdly, I’m actually about to come out in favour of cheating, of a sort. I’ve just finished reading an article in the  sport section of the usually execrable Evening Standard. It got me thinking about Suarez, and his infamous handball against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup quarters:



I’ll get on to why I don’t see much wrong with what he did in a second. But first I’m going to briefly explain a couple of the rules of basketball which will hopefully illuminate my point.

In basketball, the rules on what constitutes a foul are very strict – other actions are considered violations rather than fouls and so do not count towards this total. To give a very common foul in basketball, we have the shooting foul: make contact with a player’s arm while he shoots and you have fouled him. The penalty is free throws and an extra foul to your tally.

The definition is deliberately specific and makes no mention of severity – merely to touch a player’s arms is (technically) a foul. It makes calls far more black and white than in football. A referee in basketball can get a call wrong, and replays may be inconclusive as to whether a foul occurred, but we never see the absurd example in football where three experienced pundits with all of the necessary data to make a decision still unable to come to a consensus.

The law in international football is extraordinarily vague – a foul is a ‘careless’ tackle. What the fuck does careless mean? If I spill me tea while making a tackle is it an infringement?

One big consequence of basketball’s rules on fouling is that of the deliberate fouls – they occur all the time. Often there is a tactical advantage to committing a foul, but the important thing to note is that these infringements are considered a part of the game. If a player deliberately fouls, the rules are structured in such a way as to allow him to do it safely.

My point is that when a player fouls, and accepts the consequences of those actions, he is not breaking the rules but playing the game entirely within them – just as putting the ball out of bounds results in losing possession to the other team, fouling gives the other team free throws.

Okay: back to Suarez. I argue that Suarez did not subvert the rules of football. In fact, not a single thing occurred within that entire video which is not explicitly laid out in the rules of football. Nobody got hurt, and the rules of the game were followed to a tee. Again, just as it is ‘against the rules’ for the ball to leave the field, it is against the rules for Suarez to handball on the goal line; each action has consequences which benefit the other team.

Suarez felt that handballing on the goal line was an action worth the consequences and it turned out to be. I have no problem with that at all, although his attitude was bit arsey. 

Contrast and compare Gareth Bale and the diving issue. The question is: is this cheating? Absolutely. A deliberate foul should make no attempt to subvert the rules – it plays entirely within them. The question of cheating lies in the question “Would a magical referee armed with a Palantir, or a video replay, call the action differently?” And with diving, the answer is absolutely yes. Simulation uses the imperfection of referees to mock the rules of the game itself.

A fuller post on diving, and eventually a comparison with capital markets and financial responsibility, will follow.
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