South Africa shut up the Cassandras in the Western media who predicted that crime of gargantuan proportions would descend upon the country and its World Cup visitors and kill many of them or steal their belongings. This would bring shame on South Africa, the African continent and Fifa, which had allowed itself to be “conned” into believing that Africa was capable of building the stadiums needed for a World Cup tournament, and the ancillary services that go with it.
Now it is the Cassandras who cannot show their faces to the world. Having failed to intimidate South Africa, they are now turning to Africa. They have begun to spread rumours that South Africans are about to resume the xenophobic killings they engaged in two years ago (2008). What they do not realise is that South Africans, wielding vuvuzelas, have enjoyed themselves too much during the World Cup to be tempted – or paid – to disgrace themselves in such a way.
Did they not adopt the Ghanaian Black Stars, the only African team that very nearly progressed into the semi-finals stage? Did they not cry with Ghanaians when the Uruguay player, Luis Suarez, became a second goalkeeper for his side and thus prevented Ghana from winning a match that everyone could see they had won? That match, played on 2 July 2010, will enter the annals of football history and will probably make Ghana more famous than if they had actually advanced into the semi-finals. When Suarez used his hands to push back the ball that had started to enter the Uruguay goal in the last minute of extra time, he couldn’t have realised that he would precipitate a major change in the rules governing world football. But the change is coming.
Uruguay cheated. Our missed penalty, heartbreaking as it was, was but a red herring. Uruguay cheated – and were allowed to benefit from cheating. No one in the world who watched that match can ever forget the act of infamy carried out by Suarez. Especially after he boasted that “the hand of God now belongs to me”. Suarez said after the match (alluding to Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup): “Mine is the real hand of God. I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper, so it was worth it… When they missed the penalty, I thought ‘it is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament.’”
The question is, does Fifa think it acceptable that a team should field two goalkeepers in a match? If Fifa does not change the rules to prevent future cheats from imitating Suarez, football is doomed. Who wants to watch a game in which dirty cheats can get away with murder? Isn’t one Diego Maradona enough in football history? Now, we’ve also got a Suarez! Already, to “Suarez” has become a bogey word that internet commentators are using to describe what happened.
One Ghanaian, Solomon Amanzulley Akessey of Grinnell College, USA, has written most lucidly on why Fifa should change the rules. He notes that the World Cup in South Africa “has raised a long list of ethical issues against the beautiful game” that “Fifa must address if the game is to remain beautiful”. He thinks the most pressing of these is “deliberate handball fouls”, like the one that denied Ghana the chance of qualifying for the semi-finals. “If Fifa refuses to look into this problem, then the message it seeks to send is that cheating, however unethical, is useful and players can, and should cheat to win.
“Uruguay clearly did it. Suarez, being the last defender on the line, deliberately arrogated the privileges of the goalkeeper to himself and handled the ball. Had he not handled the ball, [Ghana] would have scored the goal… The [existing] rules were clear and the referee played fair and promptly showed Suarez the red card and awarded a penalty to Ghana.
“But therein lay the problem. When a goal has clearly been denied in such an illegal way, it is simply unconscionable for Fifa to try to solve the problem in a way that does not punish the opposing team as they deserve, but rather rewards them. If a player is the last man on the line and he handles the ball, when he is not the goalkeeper, then it should be an automatic goal… For if a penalty is awarded, the pressure alone could make the [penalty] taker miss the shot, in which case the player who committed the foul would have been justified in committing it. And we saw [that happen] when Suarez started jumping up and down, when Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty.”
This view that an automatic goal be awarded to the team that has been denied such a legitimate goal has been strongly supported by no less a person than former British World Cup referee Graham Poll. Writing in the British Daily Mail, Poll said “Fifa make every player wear a ‘fair play’ badge and yet a cheats’ charter exists which Luis Suarez of Uruguay exploited to help his side reach the World Cup semi-final against Holland.
“Dominic Adiyiah’s header was on the way in, to give Ghana victory when Suarez deliberately beat the ball out with his hand. The officials got it spot on, dismissing Suarez and awarding a penalty, but that gave Uruguay a lifeline they did not deserve. The penalty, the final act in extra time, was missed and Uruguay won the subsequent shoot-out. Referee Olegário Benquerença would have been relieved to spot the handball, but in the dressing room afterwards, his team would have discussed the sense of injustice.
“The clause in the law under which Suarez was dismissed was the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. This carries a one-match ban, leaving Suarez free to play in the final should Uruguay beat Holland. The problem is that Ghana were denied a goal, not just the opportunity to score one. A penalty goal in these circumstances would be appropriate.”
I don’t want to generalise, but is it really surprising that it was a Latin American country that cheated Ghana so blatantly? In Latin America, some people take football fanaticism to almost religious levels. The most notorious incident of what might be called “non-football football” occurred in 1969 in Latin America when, during a series of World Cup qualification matches between El Salvador and Honduras, feelings were aroused to such an extent that riots occurred, followed by an actual “Football War” (known locally as La guerra del fútbol) between the two countries. It lasted for 100 hours or four days, during which 2,000 people were killed.
It was also vagabond trouble in stadiums in Latin America that made it necessary for moats to be built in some stadiums to prevent football fans from invading the pitch. In one instance, a crowd surrounded a referee and tried to strangle him. Some readers will also recall the story of how Andres Escobar, a Colombian player, was shot and killed after scoring an own goal which caused Colombia to lose 2–1 to the United States, in a World Cup match in June 1994. Killed – because of an own-goal scored accidentally.
The world desperately needs protection from those who want to cheat in order to advance in the World Cup. Now that the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, has accepted the principle of using technology to assist referees in decision-making, all manner of cheating should be eliminated so that the world can enjoy football without any reservations.
What is the point of leaving games to be decided by “non-offside offsides”, goals not given when the ball has clearly crossed the line, free-kicks given as a result of play-acting on the field, etc, when 21st-century technology can help to eliminate all doubts from the minds of referees?
The most miraculous thing that technology has brought into another game that used to be dogged by controversy – cricket – is to eliminate cheating and doubts about umpires’ decisions. When the cricket ball hits the edge of a bat so faintly that it is difficult for the umpire to detect whether the ball touched the bat or not, an infra-red video can now show whether the ball did in fact hit the bat before being caught by the wicket-keeper or another player.
One of the best bowlers of his time, Michael Holding of the West Indies – so devastating in attack that they nicknamed him “Whispering Death” – was reduced to breaking down and crying on the pitch at Perth in western Australia, when biased umpiring denied him of wicket after wicket during the West Indies tour of Australia in 1975–76. The introduction of “third umpires” who can use video to adjudicate controversial issues has ensured that such iniquities can never happen again.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter should act fast, otherwise people will always be pointing fingers at him and saying, “This is the man whose organisation threw out the last African country, Ghana, from the World Cup, when it was only cheated of victory because there were two goalkeepers playing for their opponents, Uruguay.”
Everyone says of the Ghanaians: “Your boys did Africa proud.” The cheating they suffered will not be in vain if it galvanises Fifa into action to eliminate, once and for all, such cheating from the otherwise lovely game of international football.