No Harm, No Foul?

Luis Suarez Intentional Handball in 2010 World Cup

There are some actions performed during the course of a game that could be considered “unethical” by some people, but as an athlete I feel different about them.  As some of you may know I am a soccer player.  Over the many years of playing the sport I have developed many different skills and strategies that I continue to develop each and every time I play.  One of the concepts I have picked up from several of my coaches was the notion of a “smart foul” during a game.  First of all, fouling is technically breaking the rules of the game.  You are supposed to play within the rules, and it would seem unethical to some to purposely do otherwise.  The rules are there to be followed and under no circumstance is breaking them the right thing to do, right?  This argument gets a little gray with the idea of a smart foul.  A smart foul, in the game of soccer, can happen in hundreds of different situations.  Sometimes you do something as simple as delay a free kick on purpose so your team can get back in numbers.  I would say the most common smart foul occurs when a defender purposely grabs, trips, pushes or nudges the offensive player around midfield, as to prevent a fast break, numbers down situation, or dangerous 1v1.  There’s even a pretty common saying for when you attempt to tackle someone coming at you: “If you don’t get the ball, get the man.”  This is saying if you miss hitting the ball on a slide tackle, at least catch the opponent in the leg so there’s a foul and he “doesn’t” beat you.  It’s strategy, albeit an old-school one, but it’s still said today.  I have done all of these past examples; it’s the nature of the game.  It’s not like I wasn’t penalized for my actions.  There were fouls called and cards given, and the proper procedures were followed.  I accepted my consequences with open arms.  Is that unethical?  You tell me.  I think it is part of sports.  The objective of a game is to beat the other team, which means drawing up and implementing a better strategy than them.  Sometimes the only thing to do to preserve the win is to break a rule.  If the rule is broken and there is no severe physical harm done in the process, then I consider it okay to commit those fouls for the sake of the win.  This brings me to a very famous example of a player purposely breaking a rule to save a win.

In the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay squared off with Ghana.  The game found itself in extra time and the score 1-1.  There was only a few seconds left in the match, and if the extra time ended as a tie, there would be a penalty shootout.  If someone were leading at the conclusion, that team would advance.  So with just mere seconds left this play happened:

What you just saw was Luis Suarez of Uruguay purposely saving the ball of the line with his hands, something only the goalie is allowed to do.  The ball was CLEARLY going into the net until it met his fists of fury.  The ref promptly called the penalty kick and issued the standard red card for the intentional handball.  Luis Suarez was ejected from the game, as is protocol for a red card, and Ghana was awarded the proper penalty kick.  All Ghana had to do was put away the PK and they would have advanced.  PK’s are scored about 85% of the time.  If you are Ghana you are upset because the 100% goal was illegally saved and replaced with an 85% goal.  Lo and behold, Ghana MISSES the penalty kick and the game goes into penalty kicks to decide the winner.  As fate would have it, Ghana lost the PK shootout and was eliminated from the World Cup.  Suarez got a lot of flack for his move on the line, but as a soccer player, I saw a player who sacrificed his playing for not losing.  He saved a sure thing, giving his team a chance to survive, and survive they did.  I know a lot of people will disagree with me and say the play was awful and he should be ashamed but I understand the level of competition sports can bring out.  I do have a line.  As long as no one is actually hurt (and by that I mean in more pain than a normal foul in the course of the game would cause) then these fouls are being used strategically and not for any harmful reason.  I also wouldn’t consider it cheating because fouls are built into the game.  They are expected to happen and as long as they are properly penalized, then the game is being played as it should.

I’d be interested in hearing what some of you think about the Suarez play or about intentionally fouling in general.  It would be interesting to see what some of the other athletes in the class would say in comparison to those who may not play sports.  Just to see what some people think, here’s a poll:



7 thoughts on “No Harm, No Foul?

  1. When I watch that video I see an absolutely necessary play. Though not legal, Suarez owed it to his team to save a goal when he is in the position to do so. Sure it would have been better to use his body rather than his hands, but sometimes you have to improvise and get the job done. As Suarez’s teammate or coach, I would take this foul any day.

  2. I really enjoyed your post and found that I could relate a lot of what you were saying to my playing days of basketball. There were many times when a guy was on a fastbreak with an easy layup or a big man had established deep post position where coaches would teach their players to commit a foul to prevent a worse outcome for their team. That being said, I feel like with sports rules and ethics, you must take into account the frequency with which certain rules are broken. A basic foul in soccer or basketball happens all the times throughout games. Even with intentions to foul, all players within their respective sports know when this is just a common foul that would not be considered unethical. The handball example you gave is unique because, at least to my extremely limited understanding of soccer, that kind of thing does not happen very often. One kind of parallel example to a late game ethical situation in basketball involves shooting with a few seconds left when your team has a big lead. It is an unwritten rule and a basic sign of respect to not continue to try and score in the final seconds of a game that you are winning. Last week I was at the Bucknell game against Colgate, with BU up 69-61 with just 10 seconds left. Everyone in Sojka was on their feet, cheering not just for the win, but also hoping for one more point so they could cash in their ticket stubs for free whoppers at Burger King by reaching the 70 pont mark. However, Bryson Johnson displayed his ethical values by respecting the integrity and unwritten rules of the game by holding the ball and not shooting, although it was to the disappointment of many hungry fans.

  3. As an athlete, I do agree with what the handball situation. I am very competitive and on the international stage, people are very desperate for a win. The weight of the nation is on their shoulders so I completely understand the desire to win and sometimes using any method possible to win. Also being a big soccer player growing up I have been taught the idea of the “smart foul.” You brought up the point that it is okay as long as no one gets hurt. Admittedly, I have played dirty to help win championships too. Until I has seriously hurt by an intention kick to the head, I was all for playing a little dirty. I think there is a thin line that players need to make sure they don’t cross. A little elbow here and there never hurt anyone, but a kick to the head or even an illegal slide tackle can permanently injure someone. Common fouls happen all the time in sports, but the line is drawn when players deliberately and forcefully cause long term damage.

  4. In some situations players might just be “accidentally” protecting their faces, and this is what might have happened there. Poor guy Suarez was just so afraid of getting his pretty face deformed that he responded by fending his face and, by a chance, the goal. Some just don’t approve of football players who try to look good. Football is a sport for men! There is no place for little girls on the field. That is probably the reasoning behind a red card. Also this explains why there are so many Ronaldo-haters.

    • Well, actually I watched this match and was disappointed, since I rooted for Ghana. I never liked Suarez prior to this incident, and after I disliked him even more. Partially, defeat was Ghana’s fault: they did not score a penalty. However, making such an obvious foul is just disgusting, considering the fact that he could have tried to play it with his head.


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