Luis Suarez is once again at the heart of controversy, this time for a handball which helped him net Liverpool’s second goal at Mansfield in the FA Cup on Sunday. After his initial shot is saved during the second half, the ball rebounds towards his chest and hits his hand, deflecting the ball conveniently into his path to tap into the empty net.
Undoubtedly, the ball hitting Suarez’s hand is critical to the goal. Had it not happened, he wouldn’t have scored, Liverpool may not have won today. It was brazen and dishonest. This is not a defence of Suarez as a person or character. For one thing I don’t know him. For a second thing, his opponents frequently attack him for his antics, and he has form for using his hands in the penalty area. Ghana still have not forgotten that critical handball on the line during the World Cup quarter final in 2010 which denied them a last four place.
Yet the debate over whether what Suarez did was wrong or not transcends simply judging the player for his actions. Suarez, since arriving in England, has come to play the role of the ‘cheating foreigner’ whom we can take our deep rooted xenophobic rage out on.
There are good reasons to dislike the player, not just for the incidents above, but the racism spat with Patrice Evra and when with Ajax, he was once banned for biting a player’s ear. But Suarez is not the only one guilty of dishonesty in today's game. Even Leo Messi, football's' deity, has handled the ball on its way in once. Us English are just a bit touchy about these things because of someone called Diego Maradona, whose handball once gave us the perfect excuse for being completely outplayed in a World Cup quarter final - i.e. the foreigners cheated. English players cheat to. In fact, all players of all nationalities cheat. No one nation is any more likely than the other to have players guilty of gamesmanship or outright cheating.
Football is a sort of moral vacuum, a place where players from all teams and clubs seek to take advantage of whatever small tricks they can get away with. Players are constantly appealing for fouls, throw ins, goal kicks and penalties that they know are not theirs. And while using the hand to guide the ball into the goal is one of the most deplorable of the forms of cheating, it is not exactly dissimilar from a player who knows the ball has hit him on its way out of play, happily accepting a referee mistakenly giving his team a subsequent throw in, free kick or goal kick.
Dishonesty is the real issue. Suarez, if anything, is hardly unique in this. The difference between Suarez and most of his peers is that he seeks not to hide his shameless self interest and willingness to bend and even break the rules if he can get away with it. When the Uruguayan celebrated on the touchlines as Asamoah Gyan missed that penalty in that World Cup clash, most watched on with revulsion at his antics. Having callously cheated Ghana out of their semi final place, Suarez’s lack of remorse filled fans with anger. Yet he was if anything being more honest than most. 99 per cent of the public, in a World Cup quarter final, with the ball heading into the goal to knock out their country of a once in a lifetime opportunity to place in the last four, would punch the ball away if they could. Few would celebrate as Suarez did. Yet Suarez embraces this selfish instinct. The rest of us pretend we do not have it.
Perhaps, rather than castigate Suarez, we should be reflecting on why football in general is so lacking in any morality. We all like to think if it was us in the heat of battle, we would be honest, we would admit our wrongdoing on the football pitch. Yet very few actually do. And that is because most players on the pitch are trying to cheat their opponents out of every small decision that impacts the outcome of the game. It would be nice to watch a sport which has no such gamesmanship. No diving, swearing, appealing for decisions you know are not yours, handballs on purpose, the list goes on and on. Yet Suarez is becoming the vehicle for fans to vent their anger at the general problems in football. The Uruguayan does some up many of those major flaws, but he is hardly uniquely guilty of the crimes he is fingered for. Perhaps we should give him a break, and look at ourselves, and then the state of the game in general. That is one thing Suarez cannot be blamed for.