Fair play is just words on a banner

By Martin Samuel, July 8, 2010

So they got away with it in the end. Uruguay will not contest the 2010 World Cup Final, meaning Luis Suarez will not have the opportunity to score the winning goal and FIFA have escaped being made to look like the most wanton, spineless administration in world sport: but it was a close thing.

Uruguay were a goal away from taking Holland to extra-time and perhaps the lottery of penalties in Cape Town.

At which point, FIFA's decision to ban Suarez for a single game for an act that changed the course of the World Cup would have been exposed as criminally reckless.

Nobody could have complained had Suarez been suspended for two games for handling the ball on the line to deny Ghana a last-minute quarter-final victory. Nobody could have argued the punishment did not fit the crime.

As it was, FIFA shamefully ensured Suarez had one more game, now tomorrow's third place playoff, meaning with a fair wind he could still end up World Cup leading goal scorer. At the very least, he has a chance to acknowledge Uruguayan supporters, who regard him as a hero.

Suarez behaved instinctively in a last-ditch attempt to save his team, we know that. He acted as most professionals would. Indeed, the free-kick that led to Ghana's chance being created was a travesty, too. It could be argued that Suarez was shown a red card for illegally defending a bogus goal-scoring opportunity.

That is no mitigation, however. Had Ghana scored in the last minute of extra-time, as they should, Uruguay would have been out and when Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty, Suarez's celebrations and lack of contrition were crass.

There would have been some small sense of justice preserved had FIFA banned him for two matches, though. The single game suspension, raising the possibility he could conclude the tournament in personal or collective triumph, was disgraceful. Try explaining to a junior that cheats never prosper if Suarez wins the Golden Boot.

If FIFA cannot get its retrospective decisions right, there truly is no hope, for its proactive stances are already a joke. The equivalent act in rugby - denial of a guaranteed scoring opportunity - would have seen a penalty try awarded, with nothing left to chance. Suarez would still have been sent off, but Ghana would not have been required to convert a penalty. They would simply have been given the goal.

There really is no logical objection to this. Nobody would advocate awarding goals when there is the possibility of a save or of a chance being missed, as is the case with foul tackles, but deliberate hand-ball on the line is the exception. That is a certain goal unlawfully prevented. So why offer the chance of reprieve? There was no goalkeeper in the way when the offence was committed. If there was, handling would be unnecessary. At the very least the penalty should be symbolically tapped into an empty net.

In South Africa, a serious rugby-playing country, there was widespread astonishment that football had no equivalent of the penalty try, yet the greater crime was to compound this lack of foresight by allowing Suarez back into the competition. FIFA blathers on about its commitment to fair play, but these are really just words on a banner to them.

Last updated: 3:01pm, July 8 2010