Dishonest footballers, or are they simply taking advantage?

So Suarez punched out what would have been Ghana’s winner, Neuer pretended nothing was amiss when he picked up Lampard’s shot, and – before the World Cup even began in South Africa – Henry handled France into the finals. Inevitably the question of ethics in sport is heavily discussed for a few days…until the next incident. If we’re talking ethics then what all of the above have perpetrated is wrong. But this is football; and the only ethical imperative is ‘winning at all costs’.

“I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”

These were Neuer’s words after Germany’s resounding 4-1 victory over England in the second round. But the German no. 1 escaped censure and, instead, vitriol was focused on the officials. No football fan expects Neuer to consult the referee and admit a goal had been scored – that would be ludicrous, right? And this is probably where the issue of ‘cheating’ becomes much less straight forward than enforcing new rules or retroactive punishment or television replays. The expectation of fair play, from the watching public, is reflected by the players’ actions and the difficulty stems from excessive partisanship; for Uruguay what Suarez did is hardly ill-advised but for Ghana there can be no more bitter a circumstance to accept. Oscar Tabarez defended his player amid intense media pressure (and we should wonder, for example, had Jermain Defoe punched out a last minute winner leading to England’s progress the circus surrounding it wouldn’t be so vociferous):

“I’m embarrassed by what is being asked by the British press. That is truly shameful. They have been speculating about an action that happens on a football pitch and is dealt with in the laws of the game. It happened [to Harry Kewell] in Australia’s game with Ghana. It happened in 1990 when Uruguay played Spain and a player on the goal-line blocked a shot with both hands. Don’t talk to me about a lack of humility…We’re proud of our performances and what we’ve contributed to this World Cup. Uruguay went through the three previous games with hardly a yellow card, so please don’t tell me we’re cheats.”

Tabarez makes a valid point; it was dealt with within the laws of the game. So do the laws of the game accommodate flagrant disregard to fair play? Yes and no; Ghana still had the penalty to win it and Suarez did sit out the semi final. But I think the point is more that we can understand why players feign injury, dive, or intentionally foul to break up a counter attack and this somehow leads to a less guilty judgment. Invariably, bad sportsmanship is encouraged; a foul in the opponent’s half is a ‘clever’ foul as opposed to a professional foul, diving in the penalty area is welcomed if it leads to an easier scoring opportunity, staying down to waste time is ‘experienced’ play, and – on the most basic level – every throw-in has both teams’ players raising their hands. Cheating, from the basic to the calculated, is very much a part of modern football. Why? Theo Walcott summed up the simplicity of the situation when Arshavin protested a penalty awarded to him in an away fixture at Portsmouth:

“I saw Andrei [protesting] and I ran over to him because if you’re 1-0 up away from home and the referee’s given a penalty you don’t want to tell him it’s not one. So I grabbed him and said not to worry about it – I know it’s not nice but if you want to win a game you need to take these things.”

And Walcott is completely justified, which is more what should concern any fan lamenting the absence of fair play in football. The ethical questions of fair play take a distant second to the need for victory. And in the extremely rare cases of players exhibiting sporting behaviour (everyone knows what Di Canio did but, less publicised, is a Carlsberg Cup match between Denmark and Iran in 2003 where Morten Wieghorst intentionally hit his penalty wide after an Iranian defender picked the ball up inside the box; he thought the referee had signalled for half time when really it was a member of the crowd immediately behind him who blew the whistle) they are reluctantly praised because fans would much rather see their team win in less than sporting circumstances than lose after passing up a glaring opportunity to win.

Though retroactive punishments and stringent new laws would certainly curb glaring mistakes by officials I would be dismayed if that becomes the only feasible method to cut out poor sportsmanship. Deceiving a referee is very much a part of every single professional match in football and there is no way to stamp it out with new rules (it would require reviewing every single tiny nudge and free kick incident, on and off the ball, in a sport that requires contact). A change in thinking and a greater onus on individual player responsibility is the only thing that can reduce gamesmanship. But that’s a cultural issue and there’s no sign of it changing in the current climate because we still sympathise with players who try gaining an unethical advantage, simultaneously absolving them of blame.

Do you think cheating is an ever present in football? Or is it something new legislation or a change in laws can really curb?


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Click on image below to see the Argentinean babes at the World Cup


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