Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is Luis Suárez a cheat?

In English football, one of the most debated players is Liverpool and Uruguay forward Luis Suárez.  Rumours – and even some visuals – of alleged misdeeds arrived on British soil before he did in early 2011; since then, his list of perceived sins is ... notable.

Luis Suárez far more than a Black Hat bad guy or simple cheat.  He is the single best example of the dichotomy that exists between football’s rules and their on-field execution.

The latest act in Suárez’s vile reign of terror occurred on Sunday as he scored a decisive goal against 5th-tier Mansfield Town after controlling the ball with his right hand.  As always, intentionality – as fits his narrative – can only be guessed at, especially when seen by a referee at live speeds and without replay.

The dictionary definition of cheating is to act dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage.  According to that black and white dogma, if he deliberately controlled the ball with his hand, Luis Suárez cheated.   Therefore, so did Thierry Henry, when he controlled the ball to score his game-winner against Ireland during World Cup qualifying in 2010.  As has every player who ever earned a penalty by simulation or popped an opponent with an elbow and escaped unscathed.

The word “cheat” is not often used in sport.  When it is, it’s usually preceded by the adjective “drug”.  It is a label to be avoided and the gravitas of such a moniker isn’t taken lightly.  Add to this the multifactorial nature of any situation in sport, difficulty in judging intent and simple urge to avoid litigation and it’s probably for the best that the phrase isn’t bandied about.  As ESPN commentator Jon Champion found out on Sunday, the term “cheat” doesn’t provide for much wiggle room; it is a black-and-white descriptor that just doesn’t sit right.

The rules of a sport are just as monochromatic, and plainly as two-dimensional.  Unfortunately, the field is green, white and most certainly encompassing not only third but fourth dimensions.  That they are enforced by humans with (one presumes) opinions, reasoning skills, no replays and imperfect positioning  mean rules can only be best implemented rather than perfectly applied.  Referees cannot be 100% correct and this means that players will accordingly risk sanctions to try and gain an advantage.

Suárez puts himself in positions to take those risks and obtain that advantage more than almost anyone else in the game.  This doesn’t make him evil, or a cheat (unless you like black and white descriptors); it makes him a pragmatist – someone who values results over aesthetics.  That he can shape matches – and debate – to such an extent is actually a compliment, of sorts.

Luis Suárez is not evil.  Well, not as far as I know, anyway.  He has a knack for being in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time.  And this rare talent gives him more opportunity to display how much he’s prepared to trade for a Liverpool win.

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