Fri, Jul 02, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Is it not OK to cheat in soccer?

Winning at all costs, regardless of the rules or ‘fair play,’ brings not only soccer but all sports into disrepute

By Peter Singer

Shortly before half-time in the World Cup elimination match between England and Germany on Sunday, the English midfielder Frank Lampard had a shot at goal that struck the crossbar and bounced down onto the ground, clearly over the goal line. The goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, grabbed the ball and put it back into play. Neither the referee nor the linesman, both of whom were still coming down the field — and thus were poorly positioned to judge — signaled a goal and play continued.

After the match, Neuer gave this account of his actions: “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realized it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”

To put it bluntly: Neuer cheated, and then boasted about it.

By any normal ethical standards, what Neuer did was wrong. But does the fact that Neuer was playing soccer mean that the only ethical rule is: “Win at all costs”?

In soccer, that does seem to be the prevailing ethic. The most famous of these incidents was Diego Maradona’s goal in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup match against England, which he later described as having been scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Replays left no doubt that it was the hand of Maradona that scored the goal. Twenty years later, he admitted in a BBC interview that he had intentionally acted as if it were a goal, in order to deceive the referee.

Something similar happened in November, in a game between France and Ireland that decided which of the two nations went to the World Cup. The French striker Thierry Henry used his hand to control the ball and pass to a teammate, who scored the decisive goal.

Asked about the incident after the match, Henry said: “I will be honest, it was a handball, but I’m not the ref. I played it, the ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.”

But is it? Why should the fact that you can get away with cheating mean that you are not culpable? Players should not be exempt from ethical criticism for what they do on the field, any more than they are exempt from ethical criticism for cheating off the field — for example, by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Sports today are highly competitive, with huge amounts of money at stake, but that does not mean it is impossible to be honest. In cricket, if a batsman hits the ball and one of the fielders catches it, the batsman is out. Sometimes when the ball is caught, the umpire cannot be sure if the ball has touched the edge of the bat. The batsman usually knows and traditionally should “walk” — leave the ground — if he knows that he is out.

Some still do. The Australian batsman Adam Gilchrist “walked” in the 2003 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka, although the umpire had already declared him not out. His decision surprised some of his teammates, but won applause from many cricket fans.

An Internet search brought me just one clear-cut case of a soccer player doing something equivalent to a batsman walking. In 1996, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty for being fouled by the Arsenal goalkeeper. He told the referee that he had not been fouled, but the referee insisted that he take the penalty kick. Fowler did so, but in a manner that enabled the goalkeeper to save it.

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