Crimes and Punishments (World Cup Edition):

Uruguay’s loss to the Netherlands in yesterday’s World Cup semifinal may perhaps have been foreordained, given how deeply they had offended against the gods of soccer. For those of you who missed it, at the very end of the previous game, the Uruguay-Ghana quarterfinal, a tense back-and-forth affair which was tied 1-1 in the closing seconds of the 30-minute “extra time” period tacked on to the first 90 minutes, Ghana was awarded a free kick; the ball was sent into the box, and one of the Ghanaian players launched a shot that was clearly goal-bound but which Luis Suarez, the outstanding Uruguayan forward, punched away. It was an excellent save — except that Suarez is not the goalkeeper, and not entitled to use his hands. The ref spotted it immediately, Suarez was given his red card and expelled, and Ghana was awarded a penalty kick — which Asamoah Gyan pomptly clanged against the crossbar. The final whistle blew, the game went to penalties, and Ghana lost.

It was — to put it mildly — an excruciating moment. [A perfect illustration, by the way, of Post’s First Law of Soccer: that we don’t love watching soccer because it is “fun,” we love watching soccer because it is compelling drama. There will not be many times you’ll see, in public, pain like that; with a billion people or two watching, including just about everyone in Ghana that he knows or has ever known, with the ability to put an African team into the World Cup semifinals for the very first time in history (and on African soil, with the crowd going completely crazy with the possibility), and he hits the crossbar . . . I doubt that even the most passionate Uruguayan supporters would say that was “fun” to watch. But if you’re watching, it touches something that a great performance of Lear touches — I’ve seen some actors who can make me actually feel Lear’s pain the way that I felt Asamoah Gyan’s, but not many.]

But beyond all that, an interesting Internet kerfuffle has arisen concerning the “meaning” of Suarez’ action. Mind you, this wasn’t a case of someone sticking out his elbow a few inches to try to push a ball away and getting called for it, Suarez behaved just like a goalkeeper, throwing both arms at the ball and punching it away. To some (including Suarez, who talked about the incident after the match), he did the right thing (and would/should do it again in the same circumstance). If that ball goes in, which it will, Uruguay loses; if he punches it away, he’ll get a red card but his team is still in the game and might win (as it did). If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — Suarez was prepared for the punishment and accepted it as the price to save his team. Way to go, Luis!

To others, though, he’s a cheater and to be roundly condemned for his act. [Much of the discussion in the blogosphere has focused on whether FIFA should enhance his penalty over and above the usual one-game suspension for a red card – perhaps suspend him from the rest of the tournament] Nobody but the keeper can touch the ball – that’s as fundamental a rule as there is in soccer, and Suarez knew it. The rules don’t establish an “exchange” (break rule/get punished), they establish principles of right and wrong, and what Suarez did was simply wrong; the act of murder is wrongful, even if done for good reasons and even if the perpetrator is prepared to pay the price for it.

Not at all sure where I stand on this one, to be honest.

[And, incidentally, as noted in an earlier posting, I’m picking Spain in today’s match. Not just because I will win a pile of dough if Spain wins, having bet on a Spain-Holland final back at the beginning of the tournament when the odds were 23-1; and not, certainly, because Spain has looked better than Germany up to this point. Quite the contrary – the Germans have been revelatory, while Spain hasn’t quite clicked. But there’s just something that tells me they’ll start clicking today. The Germans will not be able to do to the Spanish defense – which is outstanding – what they did to the Argentine defense (especially without the (unjustly) suspended Thomas Mueller), and I think the Spaniards will get their offensive machine in gear. We shall see.]