Is Cheating Acceptable in Soccer if it Makes for Great Entertainment?
Barcelona's triumph over Paris Saint-Germain was an incredible sporting achievement, if you ignore the comical dive by Luis Suarez to win a vital penalty. But when the outcome is so enthralling, should we simply turn a blind eye to cheating?
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
When the final whistle sounded at Camp Nou last Wednesday night, Barcelona's incredible Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain was almost instantly declared to be one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history. 4-0 down after the first leg and still in need of three goals with 88 minutes played in the second, Barça rallied to secure a historic win that sent the fans in the stadium – and millions more watching on TV – into raptures.
Even allowing for the vast intake of alcohol that undoubtedly followed, this one will not be forgotten in a hurry by those supporters. It will become part of the club's already potent mythology and serve as a rallying cry during future crises.
There should be no doubt that PSG threw away a golden opportunity to reach the last eight: even against Barcelona, no team that cost so much to assemble should concede six goals.
Yet they do have a right to feel aggrieved. After all, it is an inescapable fact that Luis Suarez dived theatrically to win the penalty that made it 5-1 (the penalty for 3-0 was hardly a stonewaller, either). Once Neymar had dispatched the injury time spot-kick, goal number six seemed almost inevitable; PSG went full rabbit-in-headlights and charged at the oncoming juggernaut, allowing Sergi Roberto to slip through their bewildered ranks and score. Cue superlatives.
But while the winning goal was legit, the fact remains that the final push to win the game was built on what clearly constitutes cheating. That did not seem to dampen enthusiasm for the result, however. Even paragon of football fairness Gary Lineker branded Suarez's tumble "clever", a word he probably wouldn't use to describe Diego Maradona's ingenious use of his hand in 1986. The BBC match report thought it was "controversial", the Daily Mail called it "dubious", while the Guardian simply noted that "Suarez went down" to win the penalty, which is factually correct while slim on detail.
Of course, all were in some way or another trying to tell a story – not least Lineker's employers at BT Sport, who just two days earlier announced a new £1.2bn Champions League rights deal – and that story could be complicated or even spoiled by a frank discussion about Suarez's dive and Barcelona's frequent playacting in the dying stages of the game. Should we conclude, then, that the end (iconic sporting comeback) justifies the means (cheating) in such cases?
You can see the argument for tossing ethics out the window here. From an entertainment perspective, Suarez's dive was the perfect plot twist (and one that I enjoyed as much as the next person). Like anyone who does not mind whether Qatar Airways Barcelona or Qatar Investment Authority PSG win a game of hyper-elite football, my only interest was in being entertained. Yes, Suarez won the penalty by cheating, but the story it created was spellbinding. Football at this level is so far removed from reality that a little extra fiction surely makes no difference.
The counter-argument is that cheating should never be tolerated, even if its aftershocks set a million hearts racing. You could call this the sporting integrity perspective, and it certainly produces a less enthralling narrative. Had justice been served the Uruguayan would have been shown a yellow – his second following an earlier caution for diving in the box, obviously – and the game would have been killed off instantly. It would have been considerably less of a spectacle, but it would have been fair. This inconvenient fact was lost amid the headlines, TV and radio spots, and the social media din that followed the result.
Who better to sit at the heart of this moral quandary than Suarez, a man whose UK press clippings include a racism storm and sinking his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic? It has been asked, quite fairly, how pundits and writers would have felt if he'd dived to win a penalty against England at the 2014 World Cup. As it was, he scored two perfectly fair goals in that game to eliminate Roy Hodgson's side in a very sporting, very English way, before biting Giorgio Chiellini in the next match and being sent home in disgrace.
The difficultly with Suarez is that he does not consider what he's doing to be wrong. He may have few British fans outside the red half of Liverpool, but he is merely an extreme example of a very different footballing culture from our own. In much of South America, being able to deceive the referee to win an advantage is seen as a vital part of a player's armoury. What is considered unforgivable here is commendable there.
That is not the case with Barcelona, however, who are revered the world over and have built an extremely powerful brand around the sense that they are més que un club – more than a club. With this in mind, the collective turning of a blind eye could be as much about who they are as what they had done. Perhaps different standards are applied, whether consciously or not. Would Real Madrid – a team often characterised as being populated by vain and ludicrously talented mercenaries – be so feted?
What we can say is that this kind of behaviour would not be so lightly treated if it was conducted against an English side playing in Europe – and this is the crux of the matter. The football establishment in this country often castigate divers with an anger never shown for bone-breaking tackles (only spitting – dirty, reprehensible spitting – is considered to be worse). Divers are portrayed as cheats, as cowardly tricksters who operate outside not just the rules but a long-held Corinthian code of honour. Fair play is essential, hence the intense scrutiny applied to referees who make a wrong decision. Win or lose, the reasoning goes, one should seek do so fairly.
This opinion is fine. It is also fine to believe that simulation and tricking the referee are part of the game. These are opinions and you are allowed to have them.
Alas, you cannot use both as and when it suits. They are mutually exclusive. Calling out players who dive cannot live alongside an acceptance of Suarez doing so last Wednesday night simply because it laid the ground for an incredible comeback for Europe's most acclaimed side. If you can tolerate his dive against PSG, you must accept every trick Suarez pulls on the pitch.
But we are all guilty of this, aren't we? You, me, Gary Lineker – we are all as bad as each other, able to suspend our ethical pretensions or our disbelief when necessary. Just as most fans will accept diving when it works in the favour of their club, neutrals watching at home will turn a blind eye when it benefits the on-screen entertainment. Pundits and writers, meanwhile, do so for the sake of the story. It happens in all aspects of British life: people will believe whatever mad ideas are written on the side of a bus if it suits their hopes and dreams.
We make a lot of noise in this country about fair play and we love to demand it of others, but do we really stick to it when our team is playing? Suarez is a perfect illustration of this: Liverpool fans loved him and tolerated his indiscretions because bloody hell did he score some goals. Rival supporters hated him – they basically wanted him sent to prison on a weekly basis – but in the event of a transfer they'd have walked to Merseyside and given him a piggyback to their ground.
Ultimately, football is about gratification: watching your club win, or an incredible match on the telly. And it is about entertainment: telling grand stories with recognisable characters and last-minute plot twists. Fair play is great, but it's also incompatible with these requirements. It's a noble ideal until it gets in the way of the story.