The Hand of God: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Law in the Beautiful Game

If you help your team win a match by deliberately breaking the rules, as Luis Suárez did last week, are you a hero or a cheat?

I think a cheat, but let me say why.

Consider this famous trio of scenarios.

1. Thierry Henry, France v. Ireland, November 18, 2009.


Thierry Henry controls the ball with his hand (twice!) before scoring the goal that puts France into the World Cup finals and Ireland out. After the match, he is contrite, saying “I feel embarrassed at the way that we won and feel extremely sorry for the Irish,” adding that “the fairest solution would be to replay the game.”

2. Diego Maradona, Argentina v. England, June 22, 1986.


Maradona, who is 5 foot 5, goes up for a high ball with Peter Shilton, who is 6 foot 1. By a "miracle," Maradona gets to the ball first, causing it to fly over Shilton’s head into the goal. Replays reveal that he did not head but punched the ball into the net. After the match, an unrepentant Maradona says “it was not my hand: it was the Hand of God,” ensuring him the eternal loathing of English people everywhere. (Sorry, Diego.)

3. Luis Suárez, Uruguay v. Ghana, July 2, 2010


In the very last minute of extra time, Dominic Adiyiah hits a shot that is flying straight into the goal, taking an African nation into the World Cup semifinals for the first time ever... until Suárez punches it out. A penalty is given to Ghana, but it’s missed, and Uruguay go on to win the match. After the match, Suárez—who clearly wants to be loathed even more than Maradona—says "the hand of God now belongs to me."

I was watching this last match in a café in San Francisco, and was stunned when two people in the same café described Suárez’s action as “a great play.” Look, they said, Suárez knew that a penalty would be given and that he would be sent off, causing him to miss the next match; he sacrificed himself for his team. How noble!

The logic was of course faulty, since there’s no next match to miss if Suárez doesn’t stop the ball. Not to mention that Suárez may well have hoped not to be caught, just as Maradona was not caught. (Look at all the goals and offsides the referees missed in other matches this World Cup!) But I think the problem goes deeper than that.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of offense you can commit in a sport. The first kind is, so to speak, merely illegal; the second is also immoral. It’s not for nothing that Thierry Henry felt sheepish after committing his handball: he knew that it wasn’t just an infraction against the rules, like standing in an offside position; rather, it was a deliberate attempt to cheat the other side out of victory. For doing something like that, you can expect not just to be red-carded (if caught) but also to be vilified.

To see it differently is, I suspect, essentially to consider that winning is everything—that if X helps your team win, then X is ipso facto good. If that’s the case, however, then we should really be cheering on all those histrionic footballers who writhe on the ground in fake agony whenever someone breathes on them,


not to mention all the baseball stars who inject themselves with steroids,


or, I suppose, players like Roy Keane who deliberately set out to cause an opponent serious physical harm.


Perhaps in some sports winning really is everything. But football is supposed to be the beautiful game. You’re supposed to win by playing better, like the Spanish or—yes, let's admit it!—the elegant and impeccably honest German team of 2010. The aesthetic dimension of football causes the legal to be supplemented by the moral. It’s wrong to bring the game into disrepute, it’s wrong to seek victory at all costs—precisely because football is the sport whose ethos is joga bonito, a game of skill and grace and yes, why not, of honour.

The brilliant Ben Wolfson told me recently of an interest he’s been taking in what we might call "sanctioned illegality": even though it is officially a crime to exceed the speed limit by 5 mph, de facto, as we all know, it's not; at the end of a basketball game, similarly, players on the team that’s behind are not only not discouraged from committing fouls, they are positively required by their team to do so. You might think—as Luis Suárez, Diego Maradona, and my café-mates appear to—that throwing your fist at the ball at a crucial moment is just such a sanctioned illegality. I rather suspect it's not, and I also rather suspect that it's bad to think so. Cheats, of course, do prosper, but that’s not a reason for us to encourage them.

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