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Suarez controversy

Suarez neither angel or demon

July 3, 2010
By Tom Adams
(Archive)

A player who has scored 55 goals in 62 games for club and country with his wonderfully gifted feet this season will instead be remembered for the swift movement of his hands. In Luis Suarez, the World Cup now has a very divisive figure - a modern morality tale. Hero or cheat? An act of selfless sacrifice or a disgrace to the game? The arguments will run and run, but one thing should be clear: the Uruguay striker should not be placed in the pantheon of great football villains.

Luis Suarez palms the ball clear
GettyImagesLuis Suarez palms the ball clear at the end of extra-time against Ghana

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This was not Diego Maradona in 1986, Rivaldo in 2002 or Thierry Henry last year in Paris. Suarez cheated in the true sense of the word, but his transgression was punished immediately by a red card that will rule him out of the semi-final and a penalty that Asamoah Gyan should have scored to ensure Ghana would be the first African team to contest a World Cup semi-final.

That Gyan failed to do so was a heartbreaking moment for the player, Ghana, the continent of Africa and all those neutrals who had adopted the unfancied Black Stars as a second team. But that does not change the fact that Gyan failed to uphold his side of the bargain from 12 yards. In the end the punishment may not have fitted the crime, but justice, in the strictest sense, was done. Suarez should not be pilloried for that.

After all, in essence what distinguishes Suarez's intervention from a goalkeeper bringing down a striker, just as he is about to roll the ball into an empty net? Both deny a certain goal, but only one invites stern criticism and the sullying of a reputation.

This was not a deliberate attempt to con the referee by nefarious means. Maradona, Henry and Rivaldo all did precisely that, and criminally escaped censure. Suarez knew the implications of palming the ball away so blatantly. This was an act of desperation: with the World Cup slipping from Uruguay's grasp, it was a last throw of the dice and an act he performed on behalf of his team, sacrificing himself in the process. He knew the red card would follow.

Gustavo Poyet put it perfectly when he said Suarez was "taking one for the team". Knowing full well the consequences of his desperate actions, Suarez gave Uruguay a glimmer of hope of reaching their first World Cup semi-final for 40 years, but only that. It was a decision he had to take. He didn't have time to weigh up the morality of the act, ponder the impact he would have on a continent and how his actions would appear in the context of a wider debate about cheating in football. He had to fling up his arms to save his country, and that is what he did.

It was cheating, though. Undoubtedly the stage of the World Cup quarter-final and the emotion surrounding Ghana's status as Africa's sole remaining representatives have magnified the severity of the handball, but there is no disguising it was an act that operated outside of the rules. That much is clear, and the sight of Suarez being feted by his team-mates certainly does leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

But this incident is plagued by as many grey areas as Oscar Tabarez's scalp. Does the fact that Suarez was punished lessen the impact of his crime? Would any player, in the same position, have done the same thing? (John Pantsil's protestations that "there is no chance that any of us Ghana players would have used our hand to stop the ball" surely ring hollow).

Attempting to play devil's advocate and make the case for Suarez is an approach likely to invite abuse from those who apply morality to football (some would argue that in itself is redundant in a sport so infused with money) and the conduct of the player certainly does not help efforts to paint him as more of a Machiavellian figure rather than an out-and-out cheat.

Luis Suarez was treated as a hero by team-mates
GettyImagesLuis Suarez: Continental enemy number one

Diego Forlan, scorer of Uruguay's goal in normal time, said "Suarez is one of the heroes" and the way the team paraded him on their shoulders following their penalty victory demonstrated that is a feeling the squad shares. Certainly Suarez was not one for apologies when he faced reporters after a dramatic night in Johannesburg.

"This was the end of the World Cup," Suarez said. "I had no choice. I have the 'Hand of God' now. I did it so that my team-mates could win the penalty shoot-out. When I saw Gyan miss the penalty, it was a great joy. It was worth it to be sent off in this way. It was complicated and tough."

Undoubtedly Suarez needs to invest in a little PR advice. Drawing comparisons with the most infamous and blatant piece of cheating in World Cup history will not play well, and his emotional celebrations when Gyan missed the spot-kick were also distasteful in the extreme.

But while distasteful, desperate and cynical, this was not one of the most infamous moments in football's long history. Tags like "cheat" and "hero" - so quickly and freely thrown about following Ghana's exit - are not appropriate here. Suarez took a gamble by cheating, it paid off for his side and he has been duly punished. The rest is all just bluster.