Hand of Gaul goal, the gall

It appears to be business as usual in Europe: The Irish are never happier than when they are miserable, while the French are hiding their mauvaise foi nationale behind a fog of bureaucratese. Oh, we’d love to replay the game, they say. Except FIFA won’t let us. Les règles sont les règles and and all that.

I’ve written about cheating in soccer before — mostly with respect to diving, or what the Europeans charmingly refer to as “simulation”. There are key differences between diving and a deliberate handball (one is an attempt at drawing a penalty in the absence of a foul, the other at trying to avoid getting called for an actual offence), but both are symptoms of the very serious problem with professional soccer.

I actually think that Henry is being honest when he says that the handball was instinctive, but that’s precisely the problem. All manner of cheating has become second-nature in soccer, to the point where the shame is not in trying to get away with it, but merely in getting caught. Everyone is expected push, tug, dive, poke, swipe, and otherwise do whatever it takes to gain the slightest advantage, while players who eschew these tactics are generally seen as old-fashioned gentlemanly suckers.

Soccer has a culture problem, but at least part of it stems from the incentive structure of the game. Goals are so hard to come by that any behaviour that achieves any advantage at all is seen as fair game.

What can be done about  it? The obvious answer is that the risk/reward calculus needs to be fixed.  One possibility would be to change the game to make it easier to score. Another would be to make the cost of being caught cheating too high. The first solution is probably not on (it would hardly help to make the goals wider) while the second just misses the point: the problem is not that referees aren’t punishing cheaters harshly enough, it is that they aren’t catching them at all.

That’s why, in the uproar since the French “victory”, people are calling for a change to the refereeing system — either bringing in more refs, or adding video replay or other technological aids. That should be done regardless. But that is an indirect way of addressing the  fundamental problem, which is that soccer is a sport that continues to reward and even celebrate dishonourable behaviour.

France should insist that FIFA allow a rematch. And if FIFA refuses, then France should refuse to go to the World Cup.