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Saturday, July 3, 2010
That's why they play the games

Posted by Chris Jones

JOHANNESBURG -- "Did you see the game last night?" the waiter asked.

I did. Amazing game.

"That should have been a goal. They should have awarded Ghana the goal."

On the penalty shot? Well, he missed ...

"No, on the hand ball. That was a goal."

I didn't want my lunch to get spat in, so I didn't argue with my heartsick waiter. But the ball didn't cross the line, so it wasn't a goal. Luis Suarez stopped it. It didn't matter that he used his hands. He stopped the ball from going into the net. That's pretty much the definition of "not a goal."

Brazil got knocked out of the World Cup yesterday, but all anyone can talk about today is the terrific game between Uruguay and Ghana. I'm not sure I've been to a sporting event that ended so dramatically. During that desperate goalmouth scramble, when the ball was stopped not once but twice from crossing the line, and then when the penalty was awarded, and Suarez walked off the field with his shirt pulled over his face ... It was just an unbelievable scene.

But it unfolded exactly the way it was supposed to, at least until Asamoah Gyan rang his penalty shot off the crossbar.

FIFA and its officiating rules and crews have justly received unkind attention during this World Cup, but last night, there wasn't any room for debate. Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca saw Suarez stop the ball with his hands, which itself was a small miracle, given the chaos. He awarded the penalty, and he sent off Suarez. At the very least, Suarez will miss the semifinal against the Netherlands, and possibly more. The punishment was swift and severe. It's also the punishment that's been forever prescribed. Everybody knows the deal: Prevent a goal with an intentional hand ball, and the opposition is all but awarded a sure goal -- a penalty shot, as bad as it gets -- and you're sent packing.

Had Gyan simply potted the penalty -- or had the play not happened in the last seconds of a World Cup quarterfinal -- no one would be talking today about changing the rules of the game or Suarez's contravention of some mythical sportsmanship code. It's only because things turned out the way they did -- Gyan left stricken in tears on the field, and Suarez celebrating with his advancing teammates -- that there's been any kind of outpouring. But the hard truth is, the rules don't change based on circumstance or conclusion. The rules are the rules; they were enforced properly; and Gyan can blame only himself for having made the wrong kind of history last night.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sorry my waiter was sad. I'm sorry Africa no longer has a team in this tournament. I'm sorry Suarez now carries the Hand of Satan at the end of his arm.

But the game is the game is the game. I'm not sure I've been to a sporting event that ended so dramatically, but I've been to plenty where someone wins and someone loses. The best games are close to the very end. They also happen to be the worst games, depending on which side you're on.

That's Rule No. 1. There's no changing it after the fact.

And besides -- who would want to?