Another controversial football match ended last night with Uruguay beating Ghana after extra time and penalties. The main talking point happened in the last minute of extra time, as Suarez, a Uruguayan forward, used his hands to block a goal-bound header from a Ghanaian player. The rules dictate that Suarez be sent off, which he was, and a penalty be awarded to Ghana, which it was. The penalty was the last kick of the game, and if the taker scored, Ghana were in the semi-finals of the World Cup, if he missed, it would go to a penalty shoot-out. He missed, and Ghana subsequently crashed out on penalties.


No one can really doubt that if Suarez had not saved the header illegally, Ghana would have scored and won the match. The question is if what happens next is fair. Whether it was intentional ‘cheating’ or just instinct is actually not relevant to the discussion, it was a foul either way, and the rules are clear on what action can be taken in that situation. The debate now is whether the actions that can be taken are ‘unfair’ and whether the rules should be changed so ‘cheating’ doesn’t pay. The suggestion usually involves the same sending off punishment but the goal being awarded anyway, as a sort of ‘penalty goal’.

I disagree, because there is more to it than this simple scenario.

Let’s just say that instead of it being a goal line header, the ball had been cleared out to a Ghanaian just outside the box, and with the keeper out of position, or on the floor, the attacker hit a sweet volley which hits the arm of a defender and spins out of play. What does the ref give? Does he give a goal or a penalty? Can he even see if the ball is going in or going wide or over? After the match, replays show that the ball was going in, and that the ref was positioned so there was no way he could possibly have made that determination, so how can he give the ‘penalty goal’? Is that not just as deserving a penalty goal as the real incident? It seems to me that we would just be introducing another way for refs to get it wrong, and in such a way that they will almost certainly never be in a position to make the right call.

How does it work the other way round? What if a player deliberately handballs in order to score, or help score, a goal? The infamous incident of Thierry Henry against the Irish springs to mind. If he gets away with it (as he did), he gets a goal for his team, if he gets caught, he gets a booking. It’s the same offence – a handball, only in this instance leading to a goal being scored for his team rather than one being conceded. Do you start awarding penalty goals in that instance? Or maybe the ref should just start sending players off if he thinks think they are cheating? How is cheating to score a goal any different from cheating to save one?

Personally I think the current rules work – both incidents are ‘fouls’. If the foul is in the penalty area, a penalty is a awarded. If the ref decides it was to stop a ‘clear goal scoring opportunity’ then he can send the offender off. Handball is a foul like any other, no matter where it is committed, if it prevents a goal scoring opportunity, the offender can be punished as for any other foul. Perhaps we should consider ‘fouling to create a goal scoring opportunity’ as a red card offense, although I think that, like ‘penalty goals’, will just make things worse.

The bottom line remains that Ghana didn’t go out of the World Cup because Suarez handballed – they went out of the World Cup because they failed, three times, to score one on one against the goalkeeper from 11 yards.