Why Luis Suárez's handball goal should have been ruled out

If one thing gets up people's noses more than the most crippling tackle it is seeing a player deliberately handle the ball

Do people still exclaim: "It's not cricket," when someone bends the rules or offends a code of practice? If the sentiment could survive the bodyline crisis of the 1930s then presumably it will recover from the recent ball-chucking, bat‑throwing spat involving Marlon Samuel and Shane Warne.

It is unlikely that anybody will ever declare: "It's not football," in a similar context, for footballers have always tended to regard the laws of their sport as more of a challenge than an obligation. In short, much of the game is about what you can get away with. Football would be a dull business if everybody observed the rules all of the time. Fouls, free-kicks and penalties are part of the entertainment.

Yet if one thing gets up people's noses more than the most crippling tackle it is seeing a player deliberately handle the ball either to give his team an advantage or, equally, avoid a disadvantage. Maybe it is because this strikes at football's very soul. In a fast‑moving body-contact sport people will get hurt, sometimes seriously, but using a hand in a sport devised primarily for the feet, goalkeepers excepted, is a dull‑eyed contradiction.

All of which goes some way towards explaining the fuss that ensued after Luis Suárez had scored Liverpool's second goal in their FA Cup tie at non‑league Mansfield on Sunday having first appeared to pat the ball down with his right hand. Some television viewers and those at Field Mill who had a clear view of it may have sympathised with the gut reaction of the ESPN commentator who condemned the moment as "the work of a cheat".

Suárez did not help matters by kissing the hand in question, which apparently is what he does whenever he scores as a gesture of affection towards his wife and daughter. On this occasion he would surely have done better to leave the family out of it. In fact the nonchalant manner in which the Uruguayan put the ball into the net, much as players sometimes do when they know they have been caught offside, suggested that he did not expect the goal to stand.

That Suárez handled was unarguable but the way the ball bobbed up did present a reasonable doubt that this was his intent. Apparently the referee accepted that the handball was unintentional because he allowed the goal. In which case Mansfield were entitled to misquote Coleridge – "I fear thee Andre Marriner! I fear thy skinny hand!' – because even if this was an instance of ball hitting hand rather than the opposite the effect was the same. A hand had controlled the ball and the goal should have been ruled out.

For a lot of critics, Suárez's reputation ruled out any mitigating argument. The way he denied Ghana a probable winning goal in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup by sticking up a mitt to keep out a header from Dominic Adiyiah, getting a red card and giving away a penalty the opposition missed before losing the subsequent shootout, still sticks in the craw. Yet such are Suárez's footballing gifts that he did not need to paw the ball down at Mansfield in order to score, which is surely a point in his favour.

This incident, moreover, was hardly as blatant as the sight of Thierry Henry handling the ball not once but twice before setting up a chance for William Gallas to score the decisive goal for France against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup play-off in 2009. Henry's outstanding career with Arsenal did not spare him a mauling in the media.

A variation on the theme allegedly occurred when Scotland played Wales at Anfield in a qualifier for the 1978 World Cup. As Joe Jordan and David Jones challenged for a high ball in the Welsh penalty area, the French referee ruled that the latter had handled. Don Masson scored with the resulting penalty and the Scots won 2-0 to reach the tournament proper.

However, the suspicion that it was in fact Jordan who had touched the ball remained, although he has always denied this. Either way the subsequent Scottish shambles under Ally MacLeod in Argentina suggested the Almighty had decided to even the score.

Meanwhile the Argentinians were keeping the Hand of God up their sleeve.

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