In yesterday’s FA Cup third round match between non-league Mansfield and Liverpool, Liverpool were leading 0-1 when midway in the second half, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was running through on goal and had a shot. The Mansfield goalkeeper came rushing out and got his body in the way of the shot. The ball ricocheted upwards, hit Suarez’s hand and went towards goal.
You can see for yourself here, pay special attention to the second gif, which shows the incident at full speed. Watch where Suarez's arm ends up, behind his body. If he deliberately trying to push the ball forwards, his arm would have ended up in front of him.
Nobody is denying the ball struck Suarez's hand but Suarez didn’t move his already outstretched hand towards the ball; it came at him far too fast for him to have done so even if he had wanted to, but as the ball had clearly hit his hand, everyone, Suarez included, expected the whistle to blow. It didn’t.
Bob Paisley once said “If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later” Suarez followed that advice and tapped the ball in. Mansfield’s players immediately appealed for handball, but the referee allowed the goal to stand and Suarez rather sheepishly trotted back towards the centre circle.
That goal came at a time where Mansfield, helped by a potato patch of a pitch that put paid to Liverpool’s passing game, were putting real pressure on the Liverpool goal, with Liverpool having to scramble the ball away on several occasions. Mansfield were momentarily subdued following Liverpool’s second goal, but recovered to pull a goal back and finish the game strongly, and were unlucky not to at least get a draw. They were very unlucky to lose in that manner.
All the focus after the game was on the actions of Suarez. The commentator for ESPN (who were the broadcasters of the game in the UK), Jon Champion, decided to abandon the usual commentator’s stance of impartiality and left viewers in no doubt of his feelings by saying “That, I’m afraid, is the work of a cheat”
ESPN have subsequently reprimanded Champion, but stopped short of apologising for one of their commentator committing libel. That commentary was later repeated on a more mainstream channel’s highlight package. Champion also suggested that Suarez’s kiss of his wrist, where there is a tattoo of his daughter’s name, following the goal, was a deliberate ploy to rub it in the face of Mansfield fans, despite that being something he does every time he scores.
The media were salivating at the chance to go after Suarez, which they have done with their usual gusto. Many are of the opinion that Suarez possesses superhuman reflexes and it was a deliberate handball. Others are begrudgingly saying that the handball was accidental, but say that Suarez's failure to tell the referee is a clear-cut case of cheating. The minority, who are being drowned out, are of the opinion that it was accidental and any other player would have kept their mouth shut, so Suarez shouldn't be treated any differently.
Sure, Suarez could’ve told the referee the ball hit his hand and would've been nice of him to do so, but not doing something good doesn’t mean you’ve done something bad. Anyway, reports seem to suggest that the officials did see the ball hit Suarez’s hand, but as it was accidental rather than deliberate contact, allowed play to continue. Former referee Graham Poll suggested in his column today, that even had Suarez had said it touched his hand, the call wouldn’t have changed anyway.
Players aren’t expected to enforce the rules. That’s why there are referees. One of the first things you get taught when learning to play football is ‘play to the whistle’, which means you keep playing until a referee stops you. If the referee makes a mistake and doesn’t make a call when they should, that’s on him, not you.
When was the last time you saw a player say “No, no, it’s their throw-in”? What about “I was holding his shirt on that corner ref, give them a penalty”? Or “You got that one wrong ref, it wasn’t a fair challenge and I deserve a booking” How many times have you seen a player go “Give them the goal, the ball was over the line”?
What about a goalie saying “He should probably take that penalty he missed again, I was putting him off”? Perhaps a player saying “I wasn’t really injured then, I was just trying to waste time”? Or, a manager saying “with all the time we’ve been wasting, you should add on a few more minutes?
Have you ever seen that, ever? Me neither.
What those in England currently howling with righteous indignation seem to forget is that these incidents happen a lot in one form or another in games. How many times have you seen a ball hit a defenders hand in the area, but nothing is given? Now in how many of those incidents did you see the defender in question ask the referee to award a penalty? And how many of those players who didn’t own up have been vilified for dishonesty?
Many in the media here in England are very much pursuing the ‘dirty foreigner’ angle, which they especially like to use against Suarez, who has made himself an easy target. They seem to forget there are several occasions where England have been on the benefit of a bad refereeing call and England kept quiet and got on with the game.
In EURO 2012 in the England v Ukraine match, England were leading 1-0 when John Terry cleared a Ukrainian shot, which clearly crossed the line. The AAR, despite being extremely close, missed it and no goal was given. The four England players who were closest to the ball could’ve said the ball had gone in. Instead, they left the call up to the official. No one called them cheats after the game.
They may also want to remind themselves of Tony Pulis’ comments after Stoke’s Peter Crouch deliberately controlled the ball with his hand before scoring. Pulis, who has been on a moral crusade against divers this season (though strangely his anti-diving rhetoric usually surfaces when he thinks one of his players has done something a disciplinary panel may be interested in), said “if Peter’s got away with it, then brilliant”. Nobody made anywhere near the fuss that’s being made over Suarez at present even though that was a far more deliberate handball.
How about the booking Gareth Bale received for diving against Sunderland a couple of weeks ago? Bale got booked after a challenge in the area despite replays showing Sunderland’s Craig Gardner made contact with him. Gardner didn’t go to the referee and tell him to rescind the card and award a penalty. Nobody called him a cheat after the game.
For all those people out there seething with false rage over this incident, let me ask you this: How many times have you walked into a police station and reported yourself for speeding when no cop or camera saw you? How many times have you requested a ticket for parking illegally when nobody caught you? I’m sure every time you’ve jaywalked you’ve found the nearest policeman and asked to be cited, right?
In any sport, or anything in life, where there are rules. There will be occasions where you get away with something that strictly speaking you shouldn’t. Usually you will keep quiet and count your blessings and remember the times when things go against you. That’s what Luis Suarez did, that’s what players and fans of almost every club will do in most games when a call goes in their favour. It doesn’t make you dishonest, it makes you human.
Perhaps the final word on this incident should go to Mansfield manager Paul Cox, the person probably most entitled to feel aggrieved. When asked if he thought Suarez had cheated he said
“No I don't. For me to come out and say something like that I think would be quite cheap. If it had gone in the other end and one of our players had done it I think we'd have accepted it.
"This is the FA Cup, this is the beauty of it, sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn't.
"It's a beautiful game and for me he's a fabulous talent and for this country we're lucky to have him here. I don't think we should call him for doing something that I think 99 out of 100 players would do."
If he, the person most affected, doesn’t think Suarez cheated, how can anyone else?