Georgina Turner
Friday July 16th, 2010

In the days since Luis Suarez's decisive intervention in the last few moments of Uruguay's quarterfinal victory over Ghana at the World Cup, the cries of a nation (and a continent) pained by its failed destiny have given way to more considered sentiment. Or at least, amid Ghana sports minister Akua Sena Dansua's appeals to the African Union to campaign against African nations' unfair treatment at the World Cup (has Africa really been affected the worst by poor officiating?), she also made a rational call by asking FIFA to consider introducing "penalty goals."

FIFA head Sepp Blatter's immediate response, unsurprisingly, is that the Suarez incident (in his own words, the Uruguay forward "made the save of the tournament") will be discussed at the International Football Association Board's meeting in October, but that "if [a ball] is not in, then no referee can declare it is a goal. This is definite."

Why should it be definite, though? Rules have always evolved in reaction to changing on-field practice. Even something as fundamental as the offside rule was altered as recently as 20 years ago, to encourage more attacking football, and two years later the back-pass rule was created to further the same cause. The game isn't played on paper and there should always be a preparedness to respond to what happens on the pitch.

Before we launch headfirst into this, a couple of caveats. First, it's important, for the sake of perspective, to keep in mind that the prospect of penalty goals would not have been raised had Asamoah Gyan not missed the penalty given after Suarez's dismissal for a deliberate handball. Harry Kewell met the same fate for a less obvious handball on the goal line in Australia's group match against Ghana, and Gyan duly converted.

Second, Suarez's "save" came in the 121st minute of a World Cup quarterfinal. He had a choice between acting within the laws of the game, in which case Uruguay's World Cup would undoubtedly have been over, or illegally preventing the goal, accepting his punishment and hoping for the outcome that did indeed follow. His actions are, hopefully, an exception, and not representative of the kind of trends that precipitated the rule changes I mentioned earlier.

Nonetheless, the feeling remains that Suarez was fully dealt with by soccer's laws and still justice was not done. Jim Litchfield of San Jose, Calif., e-mailed to say, "Most Americans I've talked to say that he played within the rules -- he took the penalty he was due but made a smart play." Luis, another e-mailer, agreed: "Suarez did the only thing left to do and Ghana, by missing, showed that it was the good choice." But there should be no incentive to cheat, and Suarez's insistence that he's a hero trumpets the benefits of acting illegally loudly enough to attract attention to FIFA's reluctance to consider changes.

One of the most convincing arguments I've seen came from English referee Graham Poll (last seen on the world stage dishing out three yellow cards, but do listen anyway). "Many argue [Suarez] acted instinctively," he told the London Daily Mail, picking up on one of the key arguments for Suarez's good character. "If that is true, then awarding a penalty goal and a yellow card seems more appropriate. Then the wronged team would not be denied a goal and the instinctive act less harshly punished." Isn't this just common sense?

FIFA's reaction to any kind of proposal usually relies on the premise that unless things can be black and white, rules cannot be introduced, conveniently ignoring how many of the existing laws rely on a referee's interpretation for enforcement. Already a referee must, on occasion, surmise a tackling player's intent (unless the foul is so outrageous that intent doesn't factor), while his assistants must decide whether players in an offside position are interfering with play or "active" when a teammate looks to create a goal. In the World Cup, a Paraguay goal was wiped out because Oscar Cardozo (offside) tried and failed to make contact with a cross that Nelson Valdez (onside) diverted into the net; and the Netherlands' second goal against Uruguay stood despite (admittedly more marginal) debate that Robin van Persie was offside when he jolted a foot toward Wesley Sneijder's goal-bound shot.

Penalty goals would only be as difficult a disciplinary concept as soccer's governing body makes it. In rugby, a penalty try is awarded if the officials feel a certain try has been prevented by foul play, and the sport seems to manage its administration without the existential meltdown FIFA appears to forecast for its own men in black. In cricket, leg-before-wicket dismissals were drafted into the rules to prevent batsmen from prolonging their stand by protecting the stumps from the ball with their legs, and umpires have coped, by and large, with having to judge the flight of the ball in order to decide.

They may be largely British examples, and some readers have suggested that it's a British trait to fret over sportsmanlike behavior rather than enjoying the frisson given to the game by players acting like Suarez did. But James Chumley of Dallas e-mailed to tell me about the 1954 Cotton Bowl between Rice and Alabama, when the Crimson Tide's Tommy Lewis leaped off the bench and tackled Dickie Maegle at the 42-yard line as he ran down the open field. The referee ignored the penalty and signaled a touchdown, enabled by his certainty that Maegle would have made it and emboldened by how badly Lewis had behaved. In baseball recently, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was praised for his gracious reaction to being (wrongly) denied a perfect game by an umpire's blown call. The United States even celebrates a National Sportsmanship Day! It should be universally disturbing to hear a professional soccer player reveling in the consequences of illegal play, let alone the legitimate concerns of the wronged team.

Even if we say that handling the ball somewhere in the penalty area when it appears to be destined for the net leaves far too much to interpretation (was the ball definitely goal bound? Could anyone have intervened had the ball been left alone?) ... and if we say that a goalkeeper's being drawn away from an empty net and falling down does not guarantee a goal convincingly enough to support the use of a penalty goal (just ask Nigeria supporters) ... can we not say that a handball on the line merits at least the option of a penalty goal?

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