The soccer story that won’t die

Last week, France qualified for the World Cup with a goal, scored in overtime, via a clearly intentional handball by French super-star Thierry Henry. The reaction to that goal fascinates me because it is quite unlike what I think the reaction would be to a comparable instance of cheating in American sports, with the exception of golf where the cheating would not have occurred.
Let’s start with Henry’s reaction. He claimed (quite implausibly) that the handball was accidental; he claimed that he told the referee he had handled the ball; and eventually he publicly stated that France and Ireland should replay the match (I assume Henry knew there was no possibility this would happen). Henry, who I rate as one of the two best strikers of his generation, understood that he was going to come under a large cloud. He was right. The consensus was that he had tarnished a great, and as far as I know previously unblemished, career and would always be remembered above all for this one misdeed. Most commentators, including many in France, were of the view that the match should indeed be replayed.
I cannot imagine such a reaction in the U.S. Suppose a wide receiver was about to make a catch in the end zone, with time running out, that would win the Super Bowl. Suppose further that the defensive back committed blatant and intentional pass interference, and that the referee missed it.
Would the defensive back be demonized? Not at all, I’m pretty sure. Instead the consensus would be that he made a good play because even if the referee had spotted the foul, it would have prevented the touchdown and given his team a chance to stop the opponent from scoring from the one-yard line, where the ball would have been placed. Would anyone argue that the game should be replayed? No way. Would the guilty defender have been apologetic? Or would he have declared that he’s not the ref and, with a wink the eye, added that he isn’t really sure what happened on the play?
In theory, I think it’s commendable that the European soccer community take a more “sporting” view. But there’s an irony here: cheating is rampant in European soccer. Players routinely foul deliberately to prevent opponents from blowing past them on breakaways (this is known as a “professional foul”). Players routinely “dive” in the penalty area hoping to secure penalty kicks. Players routinely fall down on contact in order to induce the referee to give a “card” to the opponent.
There are intentional fouls, such as shirt-pulling, on every corner kick. During the 1994 World Cup, my seats were along side the penalty area. In tight games, I saw some attacking players sticking a hand slightly above their head in order to increase their chances of winning the “header.”
There is one honorable practice in the game. When a player is hurt, the opposing team will almost kick the ball out of play rather than attack with a man advantage while the opponent is still down. But that’s about it.
Why is there such an immense gap between soccer the way it’s imagined and soccer the way it’s played? A long tradition of “fair play” exists in soccer, originating in England, the sport’s “home.” Although that tradition has gone the way of the set-shot in basketball and the single-wing in football, it’s easy to understand why fans and journalists cling to it, and players give it lip service.
Whether this is the correct explanation of the phenomenon, I’m not sure. But I’m confident that in no other sport is there such a chasm between aspiration and reality when it comes to sportsmanship Americans cheat at most sports, but aren’t shocked or highly offended when cheating determines the outcome of a big game. Americans would be shocked by cheating in a sport like golf, but that’s because it almost never happens.


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