Sporting Justice? Applying rules from elsewhere to Suarez’s handball

Luis Suarez, Uruguay, HandballLampard’s shot, Tevez’s offside goal, Luis Suarez’s ‘Hand of Sod’. For those who believe football’s rules are in need of an overhaul then this World Cup has provided plenty of ammunition to take to FIFA’s headquarters in Zürich. A game that promotes incompetence from officials (Lampard, Tevez) or encourages the use of cheating (Suarez) would seem ripe for overhaul and rugby would appear to offer the most immediate solutions.

Take, for example, Suarez’s last-minute handball on the line to deny Ghana what was surely the winning goal. In rugby, there would have been no need for a penalty — a penalty goal would have been awarded. Or Lampard’s shot against the Germans. Again, in rugby, if the referee wasn’t sure, he could request a video replay. On a basic level, it seems that Sepp Blatter would be well-employed to drop by on his oval ball counterparts.

The new Hand of God, or why Suarez should be free to handle on the line again

When Luis Suarez palmed away Dominic Adiyah’s goalbound header in the final minute of stoppage time in Ghana’s quarter final meeting with Uruguay, it was the very definition of cynical. His foul denied the Ghanaians a clear goalscoring opportunity and when Asamoah Gyan blasted the subsequent penalty into the crossbar rather than the net, the outrage began.

With both Adiyah and John Mensah missing from the spot in the penalty shoot-out to send Uruguay through, the outrage hit fever pitch, especially on Twitter, where there were suggestions that Ghana had been robbed, and comparing Suarez’s handball to that of Thierry Henry’s in France’s playoff against the Republic of Ireland.

At the very least it seemed perverse that a player could indulge in that level of cheating and seemingly get away with it. Hence the calls for teams to be awarded a penalty goal rather than face the uncertainty of a spot kick.

But before the knee-jerk it’s worth considering one major difference between the handballs of Henry and Suarez: the Frenchman got away with his, with the diminutive Uruguayan didn’t. The referee spotted Suarez’s hands knocking Adiyah’s header away, sent him off, and awarded a penalty to Ghana.

Suarez was punished according to the letter of the law and couldn’t be blamed for Gyan’s missed penalty. The referee had acted according to the letter of the law and given Ghana another chance to cement their place in the semi-finals – a chance that, statistically, they were more likely than not to succeed at.

Given that more penalties are converted than missed, you could even go as far to say as what really killed Ghana’s chances was losing the toss to decide who went first in the shootout. The team taking the first penalty typically wins 60 per cent of shootouts.

But that’s statistics. What we’re talking about here are the rules that allowed Suarez to handball at the expense of a goal, which has lead calls for football to introduce a penalty goal, along the lines of rugby’s penalty try.

Paying the penalty

Briefly, in rugby, if the referee believes the defending team has prevented a try by committing an offence, he can award a penalty try. Crucially, the referee has to believe a try would probably have been scored (or, in rugby league, believes, in his opinion, that a try would have been scored but for the conduct of the defending team). In other words, the referee’s opinion is the final say on a penalty try.

Therefore, this isn’t as clear cut as proponents of penalty goals — such as ex-referee Graham Poll — would have you believe, if you were to apply it to football. It brings the referee’s opinion even further into play, and with it more possibility of human error. Often the penalty try is one of the more disputed calls in rugby.

Suarez’s case is unusually clear cut, insofar as we can be reasonably sure that the ball would have gone into the net had the striker not handled the ball (although he was in such a position to attempt to head the ball). But the problem comes when you then apply the rule practically to the game.

Let’s say on the back of Suarez’s handball, FIFA introduced a directive saying a player who deliberately handles on the line has clearly denied a goalscoring opportunity and the referee should award a goal rather than a penalty.

Firstly, this would mean Harry Kewell’s contentious red card in Australia’s game against Ghana would have resulted in Australia being penalised by one goal rather than giving Gyan the chance to score from the spot.

Secondly, suppose after this directive is implemented, a situation occurs in a high-profile game where a player rounds the goalkeeper and is about to pull the trigger but is hauled back before they can roll the ball into an empty net by a desperate defender. A penalty is award and the defender is sent off but the penalty is saved. The directive is widened.

Then an increasing number of situations occur when a clear goalscoring opportunity is denied, some of them outside the box. Each one increases the argument for awarding a goal for this, but increases the judgement call the referee has to make.

Inevitably the referee will award a goal erroneously at some point in another high-profile game, where a penalty would have been a suitable punishment instead.

In short, implementing this directive would increase the pressure on the fallibility of the referee. The laws for a handball on the line may not be morally just but they are fair and consistent.

A brief moral diversion

It’s also worth pointing out that Suarez’s handball was an extremely unusual circumstance. Normally a player who ‘takes one for the team’ by committing a professional foul does so in the knowledge that they will be putting their team at a disadvantage for a period of play and, in tournament football, ruling themselves out of the next match.

In Suarez’s case, this issue did not come into play. As this was literally the last kick of the game, Uruguay wouldn’t have been disadvantaged by losing a man for the rest of the game. Similarly, the outcome for Suarez would have been the same: he wouldn’t have played in a semi-final regardless of whether he handled the ball or not.

But by sacrificing himself at the last possible moment of the game, he ensured his team stood more of a chance of progressing than if he didn’t handle (a utilitarian action rather than a deontological one).

These situations don’t occur that regularly in football, so to introduce a system based more on human error of the basis that it works in another sport is questionable. You can also argue that Uruguay paid the price for Suarez’s actions as they faced their toughest game without one of their best players.

Watch it again, Sam

But Suarez’s handball hasn’t been the only case where football has been advised to look to rugby for tightening up the rules, in this case video technology for goals, when two high profile errors in one day saw a clamour for FIFA to return to look at the issue.

First, Frank Lampard’s shot against Germany was adjudged not to have crossed the line when replies showed that it clearly had, then Carlos Tevez opening goal for Argentina against Mexico was allowed to stand despite coming from a significant offside position. Again, there was a call for video replays.

In rugby, these are used when the referee cannot be sure that the ball has been placed over the try line. Instead he will ask the video referee if there is any reason why he cannot award a try and base his decision on this recommendation. Similarly, in cricket, the video umpire is used for contentious decisions, usually around lbw.

It’s worth pointing out that even video refereeing isn’t flawless and can’t always be used to provide a clear cut answer, Mark Cueto’s disallowed try for England against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup Final being a prime example. Although the video official was probably right, you can still find plenty of rugby professionals who believe the try should have stood.

But if video replays had been available, would they have helped in either case? Probably not for Tevez’s goal. The linesman missed the striker’s offside and the referee saw no reason not to believe his colleague’s decision that the goal should have stood.

In Lampard’s case, the referee may have chosen to stop play to check whether the ball had crossed the line or not, although again, this would be down to the discretion of the officials. Video replays would only be useful if the officials were able to make the most of them at the time. If the referee saw no cause for doubt then it is unlikely they would be deployed.

As with the Suarez case, the thin end of the wedge argument comes into play here. If video replays were made available to the referee then at what point should the line be drawn. Goals? Penalties? Red card offences? Throw-ins? It’s fine to say take the principle from another sport, but it has to be workable for football.

One further option on top of this would be to give managers the option to challenge decisions by the officials, along the lines of American Football and tennis. While fairer to teams as a whole, whether it should be implemented depends very much on your view of whether it would break up the game to an unacceptable extent or not.


Perhaps a fairer if less wide-ranging solution would be the use of goal-line technology to determine whether or not the ball has crossed the line. In this instance, football would be looking to cricket and tennis, where the Hawk-eye system is in place, rather than rugby.

Quite simply, this would — either via electronic communication or a separate video official — inform the referee whether or not a ball had crossed the line. Or, as an alternative, have the referee refer to Hawk-eye for a decision on a goal.

The goal line technology perhaps has a more pressing case to be solved than the unusual Suarez situation. While still uncommon, there are enough poor goal-line decisions, such as the phantom goal in Reading v Watford or Pedro Mendes’ 40-yard chip for Spurs against Manchester United, that justifies bringing the technology in. Not to mention that genuine goals that aren’t usually have far more of an impact on a game than a handball on the line.

Unlike video referees, there’s also less of a risk of human error here. Granted, technology can take the fun out of the game but in this case, it’s worth being correct rather than relying on human error. A good goal not given is far more galling than a bad tackle.

It’s also worth pointing out that Hawk-eye, and video technology in general, doesn’t reach down to all levels of the game in whichever sport we’re talking about. Rugby, tennis and cricket all only have the technology available to certain levels. It’s not ideal, but it shows how hard it is to reach grassroots with any form of technology.

Speak when you’re spoken to

But amid all the talk of importing rules from rugby, there’s one law where football could learn a lot from its oval ball counterpart. There’s no need for technology, no cost involved and it could be applied to grassroots football: only the captain can speak to the referee.

In rugby, it’s the captain’s job to be responsible for his team and answer to the referee. Dissent is not tolerated and players surrounding the officials is uncommon and often dealt with by a card. This isn’t to say the sport doesn’t still have issues with player behaviour, but there’s a lot more control on the pitch.

The FA have mooted this idea from time to time, most recently around the Respect campaign, while UEFA considered such a move in 2006, as part of a wider consideration in retaining referees in the game.

Suarez’s handball was cheating but was such a large talking point because it was so unusual, as were the calls for a penalty goal.

The odd goal that isn’t given in error is more common but still rare. And while video replays would solve a lot of arguments, they’re by no means conclusive, or even necessary.

In contrast, players intimidating and swearing at the referee is a common occurrence on pitches week in week out at every level. I know which issue I’d rather see dealt with first.

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