Ghana Got Screwed

July 3, 2010

Roger, that little devil’s advocate, asked me what I thought of this piece on the Ghana/Uruguay match today, in which there’s a call for an ethicist.

With Uruguay’s advancement through such a weird turn of events confirmed, the debate over whether Suarez was a genius savior or a Thierry Henry-level cheat rages. It’s obvious Suarez used his hands with purpose, but unlike Henry, he was immediately caught and punished and will now miss the semifinal against Holland. However, Ghana is now out of the tournament because of Suarez’s decision to break the rules. Though Ghana did have a golden chance to make Suarez’s efforts irrelevant with that Gyan penalty. Is there a correct moral view of this situation? Or is it just an unbelievable turn of events within a game that should be appreciated for its complexities? Luis Suarez doesn’t care. His team plays on.

This was an amazing bit of football, if I do say. I was watching live and could hardly breathe as events unfolded. Jasper, my four-year-old, seemed worried: “What happened? What happened? What happened?!”

It’s hard to explain these things to a four-year-old when gasping for breath. Since Roger asked, I might as well say what I think. “I don’t know!”

I think Uruguay’s win was total bullshit. Ghana rightly won this game.

Okay, right, rules are rules; but rules that allow cheating of this variety are rules that the game can’t stand. And make no mistake. This was cheating. Let’s trace the logic:

If one subscribes to the rules regulating play, and assumes that rules are mere contingencies, it would appear that Suarez made a very smart and calculated decision. He won the game for Uruguay… or at least, prevented Uruguay’s defeat, thereby creating the conditions that made possible their win.  He did this by using his hands to block the shot from entering the goal. This block is an automatic penalty, resulting in his immediate ejection from this game, as well as his ejection from the next game. Under normal circumstances, this is a stiff penalty. Under these circumstances, it’s clear first that the penalty wasn’t stiff enough, but second, that any response that doesn’t undo what was done — that is to say, that doesn’t grant Uruguay the goal — basically reasserts the contingency of the regulative rules, thereby suggesting that the rules are practically inconsistent.

It would be tempting to see this violation of the no-hands rule as wrong for the reason that it might create hostile play, resulting in a free-for-all in the penalty or the goal box. It introduces the possibility of winning by any means necessary, so long as one is willing to suffer the consequences. One can imagine a state of play where dangerous tackles will be taken strategically. If I were a coach and rules like this were allowed, I’d swell the size of my team by bringing in some decent but not great players — pawns, basically — and having them slide tackle the good players on the other team to take them out. Tonya Harding offers a slightly gruesome parallel. That’s a very bad rule, and so a rule like that ought to be changed.

More importantly, however, is that this is a rule that simply isn’t fair, since its deployment suggests that the no-hands rule isn’t a rule at all. It suggests that the no-hands rule is only contingent, not constitutive, of play. It suggests that it can broken when it suits a person.

What do I mean?

Well, what’s one of the first things you learn about soccer? Here. I’ll answer for you. You learn this:

The game is played on a rectangular grass, or green artificial turffield, with a goal in the centre of each of the short ends. The object of the game is to score by driving the ball into the opposing goal. In general play, the goalkeepers are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms, while the field players typically use their feet to kick the ball into position, occasionally using their torso or head to intercept a ball in midair.

That’s right. You learn that what makes this game soccer (or football) is that it is a game played primarily with the foot. Apart from the goalie, all players must use their feet (and any other appendage not resembling a hand). So the rule is this:
No player, apart from the goalie, may use his hands to field the ball.
That’s soccer. Now imagine this game with Suarez’s rule:
No player, apart from the goalie, may use his hands to field the ball; but some players may use their hands when it suits them.
That rule is weird. And it’s not just weird. It’s contradictory. It suggests that one both can and cannot use one’s hands.
My use of the pawns to slide tackle the powerful players above illustrates the practical implication of this contradiction; and should probably help explain why Uruguay’s win was cheating. The Suarez rule’s deployment may result in a dangerous pitch for players, but that isn’t its main problem. It’s main problem is that it is unfair.


  1. Thanks for this. The Ghana loss was one of my most painful sports memories.

    So what should have been done? I agree Ghana got screwed. But you really think we should just award the goal?

    And was Ghana screwed more than England when their second goal was disallowed?

  2. Ghana did not get screwed. The intentional handball in the box is covered by the rules and is severely sanctioned, with an automatic red card and penalty kick.

    In every sport players face judgments about when to incur sanctions covered under the rules. A NFL cornerback will take a pass interference penalty rather than allow a touchdown pass. A NBA player will hack-a-Shaq when the game is on the line. And a soccer player will intentionally handle the ball when the alternative is a allowing goal that loses the game.

    Ghana did not win this game. They had a great chance to do so, and a fair chance, covered under the rules. They simply did not capitalize.

    Uruguay did not cheat. The had a player who consciously chose to incur a penalty. It would be no different than a dangerous tackle from behind on a breakaway.

    If you want to talk about handballs and cheating, well, Ireland has a gripe. Ghana does not. You can argue for a change in the rules — fair enough — but playing fairly under existing rules does not make this episode cheating.

    So there! 😉

  3. Bah.

    According to your reasoning, cheating is an impossibility. If you agree with me that soccer belongs to a class of games in which cheating is possible — as opposed, for instance, to make believe — you must agree that there are some conditions under which violations of the rules, whether overlooked or caught and penalized are instances of cheating.

    The chess players in Washington Square Park are both very good at chess and very good at cheating at chess. One of their techniques is to palm a pawn when you’re not looking, so they put you in a bad position, a pawn down.

    One could argue that they’re taking their chances to secure the win. If they don’t get caught, they will likely win. If they do get caught, the penalty is relatively minor. Better for them to risk it.

    So too for other sports. There are penalties for doping, and one risks stiff penalties if one gets caught. If not, then one can win. Is it cheating to dope? Not if we subscribe to your logic.

  4. Cheating is of course possible, hence the reference to Ireland/France.

    Cheating results when the rules are circumvented, not when they are appropriately applied. In the Ghana case there was no circumvention of the rules. In fact, the rules were appropriately applied. Thierry Henry’s handball (or Maradonna’s) were different, as they involved intentional deception.

    If one is doping in the Tour de France the penalty is being banned from the Tour and stripped of any record of participation. So the only way that doping “succeeds” is by cheating, i.e., engaging in deception, not getting caught and circumventing the rules. None of these apply in the Ghana case.

    In the Ghana case the violation was caught and the proper sanctions were applied under the rules of the game. This by definition cannot be cheating any more than a slide tackle from behind penalized by a free kick and yellow card is cheating. Ghana was not screwed.

    Methinks that there is a bit of uncharacteristic consequentialism slipping into your argument 😉

  5. Seems to me you’re the one with the appeal to consequences.

    Okay, so cheating only occurs when one isn’t penalized for breaking the rules. That’s an interesting view. This would suggest that moments before a broken rule is caught, it is cheating, but moments after the broken rule is caught, it’s not cheating. That’s an odd position. The same action/event is both cheating and not cheating.

    Seems to me we need a different definition of cheating.

  6. Hmmm … seems like an appeal to semantics 😉 (You mischaracterized my definition in any case, it had 3 criteria, not 2!;-)

    But you won’t get off that easy. I am not interested in arriving at a universal definition of cheating. I think that cheating is highly contextual and probably cannot be covered by a universal definition in any case.

    What am am interested in is your claim that this particular context is an instance of cheating and that Ghana got screwed.

    Answer me these questions Y or N:

    Is a dangerous slide tackle that results in a free kick and yellow card an instance of cheating?

    Is a foul in basketball to prevent a layup an instance of cheating?

    If Ghana had made the PK at the end of extra time, would they still have been cheated in your mind?

    Clock is ticking to the next game, so hurry up! 😉

    • 1. If the slide tackle really is judged to be both dangerous and intentional, it results in a red card and severe punishment to your team since they now have to play a man down for the rest of the game and most probably loss of the game. Not cheating.

      2. In basketball this results in a two shot penalty. If the ball is prevented from going into the basket as it is entering it is goaltending and the basket is deemed to count. Not cheating.

      In many games skilled players use the rules as both a sword and a shield, it is just considered a part of the game. This particular situation was a rather severe corner case where the prescribed penalty for the infraction did not carry sufficient weight since play was essentially over. If the goal goes in, Uruguay loses the game. If the penalty kick goes in Uruguay loses the game. If the shot is blocked, they are alive for the shootout, but still have a chance of losing the game. But the ejection did not carry any weight because play was over.

      How would you handle this situation?

  7. I’m weeding and watching the game, man. Plus, we’re off camping tonight, so I’m trying to prep for that.

    At any rate, you don’t really want to hang it on intention, do you? Certainly it’s possible to cheat without intending to do so, yes?

    If I instinctively raise my hands to grab a ball, and then do, but after the fact make an attempt to hide what I’ve done, it seems to me that I’ve cheated, despite the fact that I had no intention of doing so. Maybe I just haven’t cultivated the right instincts.

    So… to your quesitons:

    Dangerous slide tackle: it seems to me that it’s not playing fair, which is why it’s a penalty. Lots of people understand that it’s not playing fair, and they more or less accept that there should be a penalty, and maybe even allow that the free kick and the yellow card are, in most circumstances, an acceptable penalty. There are some circumstances, however, in which the penalty doesn’t fit the crime, just as with cases of lawbreaking.

    Fouling in basketball: is also a case of unfair play. You’re not supposed to do that, and a good player shouldn’t have to foul, or simply shouldn’t foul, in order to prevent a layup.

    Ghana: I think they Suarez’s hand ball would’ve been unfair regardless, but Ghana wouldn’t been cheated of the win, so it seems to me that they’re two separate issues.

    “Cheating” isn’t a great term in these cases, except when used generally, so as to indicate cases of unfair play.

    Finally, on the semantics point: this ain’t semantics, brother. Philosophers are often accused of engaging in semantic debates. But if we’re after essential definitions, that’s not semantics so much as it is an attempt to try to get at the essence of, in this case, cheating. Seems to me there’s genuine merit in that.

  8. You are right, intent does not matter. See:


    Penalties/fouls are part of the game. In basketball they are used strategically, so too in soccer. Such is sport.

    Fairness is much more in the eye of the beholder than is cheating. Uruguay did not cheat, they played fair. But if you said that the intentional handball was unsporting, I’d plead no contest,

    Finally, the notion of “essential definitions” doesn’t compute for me. Contingency matters. Call me an anti-essentialist. Now I’m talking like a philosopher, better check out while I’m ahead!

  9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/03/suarez-ban-fifa-to-study-_n_634684.html

    Fairness in the eye of the beholder? How I beg to differ… but i’m out. I’ve gotta go camping on this beautiful weekend. Congrats to Spain.

  10. It seems to me that Ben is correct, if we allow that considerations of fairness are not exhausted by the consistent application of a set of rules; the reason is that the rules themselves can be unfair, and I think that’s what Ben is alleging. The rules may not be constitutive of fairness; the rules may just be a way of encouraging play that is fair by some independent standard of fairness.

    For example, suppose that the law forbids stealing, and provides that victims of theft will be compensated by the thief up to 75% of the value of the stolen item. Smith really likes Jones’s classic car, which, let us suppose, is worth $200,000. Now suppose that Smith thinks it’s worth paying $150,000 to acquire the car, so he steals it, admits to stealing it, and pays Jones $150,000 in compensation. Smith has broken the rules, been caught, and paid the penalty set down in the rules. This is analogous to the handball by the Uruguayan player.

    Surely, Jones has been screwed, and not because the rules weren’t correctly applied. The rules were applied exactly as written, and it was to Smith’s advantage to break them. The problem is that the rules themselves are unfair.

    Now, determining what is and isn’t unfair becomes a tricky task. In my view, fouling an opposing basketball player to get a clock stoppage is not unfair, but the Uruguay handball is very unfair. And the fact that it’s unfair for the reasons I’ve suggested is borne out in Ben’s suggestion that the way to ensure fairness is to change the rules, since the unfairness does not result from a failure to fairly apply the current rules.

  11. Jason-

    What rules change would you propose?

    In my view a penalty kick plus red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity is perfectly fair, you and Ben can disagree of course (which is why I say that fairness is in the eyes of the beholder).

    But the rules are the rules, until the rules are changed. And under the rules, Suarez decided that the sanction was worth the violation. I have no doubts that every Ghana player would agree had the action been reversed.

    I cannot imagine what change in rules would make this situation any more fair, but I’d like to hear your suggestion.

  12. Ben- Have a nice camping trip!

  13. It seems to me that fairness, especially in a single-elimination tournament, is not guaranteed by handing out red cards to offending players; the penalty is harsh for the player, but who cares? It’s a team game, and the team benefits immensely from the unfair play. So a good revision of the rules would shift the penalty from the individual player to the team. I’d suggest no penalty for the player, no penalty kick, and credit the goal. In short, make it like goaltending in basketball.

  14. In fact there have been many games decided by handling, we only have to remember how France beat Ireland to get to SA with a “hand of god goal” (look that one up)

    The answer is not to award a goal, but to ban the player who commits such a foul for a good long time, like a year or more and, since FIFA sets the rules for all of football/soccer that should essentially forbid the players from getting paid during that time.

  15. There are a lot of good points raised in the thread, and it’s good reading. As disappointed as I may be with the result, it was a play that was “accurately” penalized. The problem is that the “penalty” did not outweigh the act. You must remember, at the end of the day, he had absolutely nothing to lose. Worst case, they lose on the PK, he misses the last 10 seconds of the game and never misses a game b/c they are out of the WC. Henry, similar situation, the potiential penalty didn’t outweigh the risk (and subsequent reward).

    There was a reference to “hack-a-shaq”, the NBA noticed this provided an unfair advantage and adjusted to rule to make it 2 shots and the ball thereby making the penalty outweigh the act. That is essentially what needs to occur in order to make it fair and prevent it from occurring in the future.

  16. It really is a moral calculus problem.

  17. Consequentialism is not a fallacy, but an ethical doctrine, which is alive and kicking, to boot.

  18. I agree with Roger, and think Ben is wrong.

    What most interests me is the cultural dimension of this issue. Immediately after the Ghana Uruguay game I told my brothers (all Latin American): “I bet you Americans are going to think what Suarez did was immoral or wrong”. Another one said that a German player in Suarez’s position would likely not have hand balled like the Uruguayan.

    I have been constantly intrigued by United Statians’ comments about football, and how they view things differently. What we Latin Americans typically praise as “maña”, being ‘street smart’ in the game, many times I find are deplored in the US. Suarez’ action is a typical example. I think that if he is sanctioned for breaking the rules, and that’s contemplated within the game, the he did what he had to do and did well.

  19. faith, and as the Brits said about hanging Admiral Byng, they did it to concentrate the minds of the others

  20. I would say Roger is right on legalistic grounds, but ultimately fails on ethical grounds. “The Law in all its Majesty…”

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