FIFA World Cup soccer is well underway in South Africa, and soon we will know who the 2010 world champions are. But the road to the World Cup has been fraught with controversies over everything from the annoying vuvuzela horns to blown referee calls to cheating.
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Soccer's most infamous example of cheating came during the June 1986 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal. Argentina and England were vying for a spot in the finals when Argentine star Diego Maradona achieved the first goal of the game by striking the ball with his hand—a flagrant violation of the rules. At first Maradona was coy about his cheating, but he eventually admitted he had intentionally hit the ball with his hand. The illegal goal (which likely decided the outcome of the game) became known as the "Hand of God" play.
When the U.S. Women's Soccer team became the FIFA World Cup champions in 1999, their victory over China was celebrated around the world. The players, including Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, were athlete celebrities and touted as role models for aspiring young women. Unfortunately, they won by cheating. U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry illegally moved forward before Chinese player Liu Ying hit her penalty kick, and with this illegal move they won the World Cup.
More recently, French player Thierry Henry had his own "Hand of God" moment in November 2009 when he used his hand to set up a decisive goal against Ireland for a spot in the current FIFA World Cup. Like Maradona, Henry admitted he cheated: "I will be honest, it was a handball, but I'm not the ref. It would have been better to do it in another way, but as I said, I'm not the ref."
There are of course many sports where cheating occurs (or is alleged to occur). From Sammy Sosa's "accidental" use of corked baseball bats to doping scandals to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik stealing signals from opposing teams, there's nothing new under the sun.
But soccer seems to allow many more opportunities for cheating, from handballs to "diving" (faking or exaggerating an injury in an effort to falsely penalize another player) to "accidentally" tripping other players.
Not only is there widespread willingness to cheat in soccer, but the fact that there is no instant reply in soccer greatly helps the cheaters. Referees and judges in most other professional sports (baseball, hockey, tennis, football, and so on) can consult videotape more or less immediately to check on the accuracy of a call. Soccer has no such option, and therefore feeds the "If the officials didn't see it, then it didn't happen" mentality. Exactly as Thierry Henry noted, he is not the referee, and it's not the players' job to follow the rules but instead the officials' job to catch them when they do not. If a referee isn't paying attention to a foul (or, in some cases, even a goal), then it didn't happen. And there is no appeal.
One soccer blogger noted that "The Argentines, for example, use words… to describe the craftiness, trickery, or cheekiness to describe players who break the rules, but get away with doing so (if a player dives in the forest and nobody’s there to see it …). So, it’s not that Argentines necessarily promote cheating, but they do have a concept that condones, if not encourages, it."
Indeed, much of the sport operates on a wink-and-nod disapproval of cheating—until it happens against the home team, at which time it generates indignant outrage.
Photo: Carlos Tevez of Argentina scores a goal against the Mexican national team. Although it was clear to home viewers that Tevez was offsides, the referees let the goal stand. Credit: Getty Images