The Rational Hand Ball

Patrick Runge@@patrickrungeCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2010

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 02:  Luis Suarez of Uruguay handles the ball on the goal line, for which he is sent off, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Quarter Final match between Uruguay and Ghana at the Soccer City stadium on July 2, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez is being demonized as a villain for his handball that denied Ghana a goal at the end of extra time. But his actions were perfectly rational.

For those of you returning from a weekend trip to Mars, here's the story. Ghana and Uruguay were tied 1-1 as extra time was ending. Ghana won a last free kick in the 120th minute of play. The free kick was curled in, and in the scrum the Uruguyan keeper attempted and failed to punch the ball clear. A shot was sent in and Suarez, the last man on the line, punched the ball away.

A red card was immediately shown to Suarez, and Ghana was given an penalty kick for the last kick of extra time. Asamoah Gyan stepped to the spot - and missed the penalty. The game went to a shootout, which Uruguay won 4-2.

Suarez is now being called a cheater, a thief, and immoral for his actions. And let's be clear - he did cheat and break the rules. But he was caught and the proper punishment was brought to bear. The laws of the game were executed and the offended team was given everything they were legally entitled to, in this case the spot kick and the red card.

That's why the Suarez handball his different from Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland. People were mad, not necessarily about the handball, but about the handball not being properly punished. If Ireland would have been given what was legally due to them - a disallowing of the French goal - the outcome of that game could have been very different.

Or, because it's Ireland, it could have ended in a different and even more heartbreaking way for Irish fans.

So the problem with the Henry handball wasn't the laws of the game, but FIFA's incomprehensible refusal to allow video replay in some circumstances. At least now FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been forced to announce that FIFA will have a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a committee to analyze the need for a panel to study the issue in greater detail. For FIFA, that's progress.

But Suarez's handball is different. The foul was seen and the laws were properly applied. And that's the problem. The punishment simply doesn't fit the crime in a circumstance when an outfield player is the last man on the line to stop a goal. If Suarez doesn't punch the ball out, it's a goal. If he does, there's at least a possibility that the other team won't score - a very high possibility, it turns out.

It's like if the punishment for stealing $100 was a $75 fine - and you got to keep the $100. 

It's also analagous to, in American football, a cornerback getting beaten by a wide receiver on a deep pass. If the receiver catches the ball, it's a sure touchdown, so the cornerback has every incentive to commit a pass interference penalty. Sure, the cornerback gets penalized, but at least the other team didn't score.

Rather than navel-gaze about whether Suarez was immoral for doing what he did, a simple rule change needs to be put into place. If a defender is in the six-yard box, commits an intentional handball, and that handball, in the referee's judgment, is the only thing that prevents the ball from going into the net, then the goal should be awarded AND the player should be shown a straight red card. 

By making such a rule change, FIFA would remove the incentive for a player to take the action Suarez did. With that rule change, it would no longer be a rational decision to intentionally handle the ball in that circumstance - a result that would be good for the game as a whole.

Of course, controversy and navel-gazing is what's really good for the sport, so we should not make that rule change and keep video replay out of football. Right, Mr. Blatter?

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