Yes and no. Sorry if that seems wishy-washy, but it’s just a complicated question.


I was rooting for Ghana, along with two dozen Ugandans watching the match in the tiny and un-ironically named “Cozy Point” restaurant. We were all angry about Uruguayan player Luis Suarez’s blatant foul and heartbroken over Ghana’s subsequent loss. Though I generally try to avoid commenting on the mood of an entire continent, I’m pretty confident that most everyone else in Africa felt the same way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was cheating.

Bill Easterly posted some good analysis on the question (it’s also where I got the photo). See full post here. The basic argument: Suarez (and that other guy with the outstretched hand) knew the penalty for the action, knew he would be caught, and did it anyway. Any other player in the same situation is faced with the same incentives, and would come to the same conclusion. Witness Brazil’s Luis Fabiano admitting to his handball goal against Ivory Coast. But please, let’s not make this about South America vs Africa, because the entire culture of football involves trying to manipulate the referees. The diving, the whining about calls, the rolling around in apparent agony only to jump up again after the whistle blows — I honestly think it’s part of the reason why the sport has trouble attracting new fans in the United States.* It’s embarrassing to me as a fan of the beautiful game. Most people agree that the officiating was especially bad this World Cup; e.g. the disallowed US goal against Slovenia, the blatant offsides goal by Argentina against Mexico — oh, and the Brazil/Ivory Coast referee asking Fabiano whether it was a handball (see link above).

But I digress. What can be done in this instance? Easterly distinguishes rules from norms. We could say the rule failed in this case, so we need better rules such as an automatic goal option. Or we could say the norms failed, in which case we should brand Suarez as a cheater and blacklist him from fashionable social circles. Easterly’s right that they both failed in this case.

In response to the cheating question: That’s why I say “Yes, he’s a cheater” and let’s brand him as such so that we can reinforce the norm against such actions, but also “No, he’s not a cheater” because he was simply responding to the incentives created by the rules. He demonstrated no intention to underminethem.

Feel free to draw your own analogies to corruption, bribery and similar problems in international development…


* But it’s only a small part of the reason why soccer isn’t more popular in the US. I think the bigger reason is, of course, money. All the athletic kids know they can earn big bucks by focusing their practice time on basketball, baseball, and American football. So the competition is fiercer in those sports, driving better performance. The rise of the MLS is great, but it will be a long while before the prestige of soccer trickles down to the collegiate and high school level.

  1. Another way of putting it is that even if he wasn’t a cheat, he was certainly a bad sport. The norm of good sportsmanship used to matter a lot more, I think, and football would be a much better game if it were returned.

    Worth noting, of course, is that sometimes rules can drive norms. For example, if a system were set up by which after match analysis was conducted (for international games) and players who took dives for the purpose of misleading the referee were subsequently suspended for a game or so, football might rid itself of at least some of the acting that accompanies nearly every tackle.


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