Meanwhile, Uruguay will play Holland. Whether the game will be any good or not, it will be a significant game. There are few nations who have made such a mark on the World Cup as Uruguay and Holland. Both have played in two World Cup finals each, Uruguay winning in 1930 and 1950, and The Netherlands losing in 1974 and 1978 and one of them will get to a third. But ancient history (in football terms) isn’t what’s most interesting about this game, it’s what happened last Friday. The Uruguayans managed to become the bad guys, while the Dutch failed to become the good guys. Let me explain.
The Suárez handball is well known, and I will return to it, but let me first talk about Dutch football. To say that Holland is widely loved among neutrals is an understatement. Holland have played attractive, attacking football since the early 70s. In my lifetime, it has been considered an indisputable fact that The Netherlands play the most beautiful football of any European nation. Nevermind that they’ve rarely lived up to that billing in the last couple of decades (1998 being the most recent classic Dutch team), though they have had flashes of brilliance, but have usually come undone against talented opponents. The narrative of this Dutch team has been that they’ve given up flair for efficiency. Their record is really impressive though, not only have they won every game in this World Cup, they won every game in World Cup qualifications. But deary dear, have they ever been so dreary to watch? They don’t inspire hate, they sure as hell don’t inspire love, they don’t even inspire a dismissive shrug. Like the Brazil team that they took out, they play with two defensive midfielders, essentially playing with a four man central defense. Outside of Eljero Elia, who isn’t a starter, flashes from Arjen Robben and, somewhat surprisingly, Dirk Kuyt, they have been mostly bereft of ideas. Really, it’s weird to see the Dutch grind out victory after victory like that. It just came out of nowhere for most World Cup watchers. It’s just bizarre. I don’t know what to think.
Back to the Uruguayans, who’ve suddenly found themselves cast as the villains of the tournament. Until now they’ve been the forgotten member of the 7 nations who’ve won the World Cup, not having gotten far in the tournament since 1970. The team had acquired a reputation in the last few decades as a hard-tackling and, frankly, dirty team. This year’s model was set to overcome that. They had played extremely well, winning the hearts of hardbitten journalists and even my grandmother, who was born during the Uruguayans first reign as world champions. Now, though, after Suárez parried a ball that was headed into the Uruguayan goal with his hands, earning an automatic red card and giving the Ghanaians a penalty they failed to score from. Uruguay went on to win the penalty shootout and advanced to the semi-finals. Ghana was the last African team in the World Cup and most neutrals’ favorites. Cue outrage. Journalists all over the world have reacted with angry columns. Even my mild-mannered friend Deborah reacted strongly (quote: “Booo Uruguay! You suck!”)
This is an interesting situation from a game theory point of view. In most situations, doing what Suárez did wouldn’t be worth it. In most games of football, getting an automatic red card and for deliberate handball when keeping the ball from entering your goal is perfectly sufficient as punishment. Furthermore, 9 times out of 10, the ensuing penalty kick results in a goal. In the fulcrum of the World Cup however, anything at all is worth the chance of what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity of reaching the semi-finals. If Suárez hadn’t parried the ball away, his dream and that of his teammates’ and nation’s, would be over. Ghana would have made it through instead. Most people watching the game would’ve been happy with that, thus their ensuing anger. Of course, Suárez didn’t help things with a terrible press conference. Here are some quotes:
“The Hand of God now belongs to me. Mine is the real Hand of God”
“I made the best save of the tournament.”
“When they missed the penalty I thought, it is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament.”
Suárez will never regret this moment, nor should we expect him to. He did what he was sent to the World Cup to do, help his national team win the World Cup. The real question is whether this was cheating, in some meaningful sense. Suárez didn’t deceive anyone, he didn’t do anything not covered by the rules of the game (he didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs, for instance, nor did he bribe anyone). His main offense was breaking hearts. The question is whether the rules of the game should be changed to ensure that no one could crush the hopes of so many. That should not treated lightly. FIFA have made many changes because of that. Playing the final games of the group stages simultaneously is a way of ensuring that teams don’t collude to progress at their rivals expense. The rule forbidding passing to the goal-keeper is to make football more attractive to watch, and harder to kill the game. The offsides law has been changed many times to ensure that teams couldn’t exploit it to deaden attacks. On this matter, though, I’ll admit I don’t know what to think. It’s hard to see Ghana lose in such a fashion, but, to quote their coach, “that’s football.”
Games are never more fascinating than when they become suffused with emotion. The anger at Uruguay, suddenly the villains of the tournament, makes for interesting drama. I expect that most people will root for Holland. I know that if not for the handball, I probably would have rooted for Uruguay. Now, to be honest, I don’t particularly care which team wins. It’ll be interesting either way, storywise. My hope is that it will be a game worthy of the quarterfinal games these teams played. As to which one will advance, it is impossible to make predictions in World Cup semi-finals. The Dutch and the Uruguayans are both no strangers to success, and no strangers to heartbreak. Holland is more individually talented, but have failed to come together as a team, witness the frustration evident on the face of their forward Robin van Persie in each game, who rarely receives a good pass (and when he does, little comes of it). Uruguay have worked together as a single, cohesive unit. Both teams will have crucial players missing through injury and suspensions. I’ll admit that I really have no idea how this will go, but if I had to make a prediction I’d go with the Uruguayans. Of course, the moment I say that, another voice rises within me to tell me not to be a fool, the individual talent of Robben, Sneijder et al will see the Dutch through.
Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius.