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Luis Suarez and the prelusory goal

5 February 2013

By Charlie Robinson

Poor old Luis Suarez. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Months after taking a dive against Stoke City in a 0-0 draw at Anfield, an incident for which the Uruguayan attracted as much mockery as condemnation, Suarez admitted his misdemeanour, and was immediately censured by his manager, Brendan Rodgers, who described his behaviour as ‘unacceptable’, and hinting that the player would be disciplined by the club for his honesty/stupidity.

Suarez is, of course, not the first, and he sure as hell won’t be the last. The moral arbiters of the game will wring their hands and decry his, and others’, behaviour as immoral, reprehensible, and so on, exciting the bile of football supporters around the country. Very common is it nowadays to hear home supporters booing and jeering poor old Luis when Liverpool come to town. I hear my friends, Liverpool supporters, exclaim almost in agony when another Suarez-related controversy occurs, “But he’s so talented, he doesn’t need to do it!”

This is obviously true. Suarez is wonderfully gifted, and opponents frequently have no idea what to do with him as he wriggles though another tightly knit defence. Furthermore, Suarez’s talent comes combined with a spiky and purposeful determinism that singles him out from most of his Liverpool colleagues. The problem is this: does Suarez’s predilection for taking a fall mean that his determinism to wrangle an advantage for himself and for his team goes too far?

The arguments both for and against diving are well rehearsed. Here are some examples of arguments that seek in some way to excuse or justify diving. Firstly, the game involves such high stakes on a regular basis that players are entitled to eke out any advantage they can, whether by fair means or foul. Secondly, diving is an art in itself, and if you are capable of fooling the referee and gaining an advantage, then all the better for you. Thirdly, and on a slightly different point, if a surreptitious foul has occurred (for example, a defender subtly pulling an attacker’s shirt), then the wronged player is, as they say, “entitled to go down”. These three arguments, and there are others, are rather practical in nature, and make no reference to moral principles relating to fairness and sportsmanship. Diving can thus be excused on instrumental grounds, and the rational footballer will take advantage as and when he can. If he’s caught, he knows that the punishment will be a yellow card.

Arguments against diving, on the other hand, are more likely to make reference to moral criteria. Diving, it might be said, is not only against the laws of the game, but also the very spirit. What ever happened to those Corinthian values? Sport, on some readings, is supposed to be a test of some quality, or qualities, and virtues. The 100m sprint is primarily a test of speed, while the marathon is a test of endurance and stamina. Golf is a test of who can plonk a tiny ball into a tiny hole hundreds of yards away, and darts, until recently, was a test of who could stay sober long enough to continue hitting the dartboard with spiky projectiles.

Each game, or sport (please, let’s not get bogged down in the distinction between a game and a sport) has its aim, but it also has a set of rules that determine how that aim can, or, more commonly, cannot, be achieved. In golf, for example, one must use a set of clubs. One cannot achieve the goal of getting the ball in the hole using the most efficient means possible – this means that I cannot simply pick up the ball, stroll over to the hole, and drop the ball in. In short, then, games force players to use inefficient means to achieve some goal, and the means that can and cannot be used are set by the rules.

This way of thinking about games and sports might help us to clarify how we approach the thorny issue of cheating in sport – in this case, diving in football. The key to the argument might be that there’s more to a game than the aim and the rules, as we’ll see. Let’s pursue the argument and see where it leads us.

In his wonderful book, The Grasshopper, the philosopher Bernard Suits provides a definition of a game (again, don’t worry about the difference between games and sports), and that definition can be explained and further elaborated with three aspects of what a game is. The book is a playful dialogue between the grasshopper, from Aesop’s fable, and his followers. In Aesop’s original story, while the ant busies himself storing food for the harsh winter ahead, the grasshopper bums around playing games, and subsequently (in some versions) dies. Moral of the story: work hard and plan for an uncertain future. But Suits’ book is a defence of the grasshopper, who defends himself by arguing that playing games is an essential part of the good life. In any case, the grasshopper begins by providing the following definition: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Let’s start with the part regarding “unnecessary obstacles”. Take boxing as an example. The aim, more or less, is to lay your opponent out on the canvas for ten seconds. What’s the most efficient way of achieving this? One way might be to produce a baseball bat from the side of the ring and bash one’s opponent over the head with it. The problem here is obvious: doing so is not in the rules of the game. In fact, the rules impose unnecessary obstacles (for example, you can only use your fists, you must wear a certain type of glove, and so on) on those playing it, meaning that the means you have at your disposal to achieve the aim of the game are relatively inefficient.

And thus we have the first two aspects of a game: firstly, we have what Suits refers to as the “prelusory goal” (the word lusory comes from the Latin ludus for game). Each game has an aim that the players try to achieve. But some means are ruled out, and what is (and is not) permissible in the game is stipulated by the second aspect of a game, the constitutive rules. So the rules of the game are said to place unnecessary obstacles in front of the player or players.

So far, so good. But let’s bring this back to football and Luis Suarez to see how it applies to diving, before mentioning the final aspect of games. In football, the primary prelusory goals are to get the ball into the back of the net, so to speak, to do so more than one’s opponent, and to prevent one’s opponent from scoring. (Of course, on many occasions the actual prelusory goal would be simply to prevent one’s opponent scoring, for example if one led a two-legged tie 1-0 going into the second and deciding game. But you get the point.)

The rules obviously specify what can’t be done within the game: fouling or threatening to harm an opponent, deliberately touching the ball with one’s hand or arm, and so on. This means that more efficient ways of winning are ruled out. As Thomas Hurka (who wrote the introduction to a recent edition of The Grasshopper) observes, the rules of the game make achieving the goal difficult and complex, but this is what gives the activity its value. Scoring a goal has no real value outside of the game – if football didn’t exist, we wouldn’t go around kicking balls into goals.

The next move here is obvious – since diving is prohibited within the game of football, anyone guilty of diving is breaking the rules. Suits, in fact, goes further than this banal observation. He says that anyone breaking the rules isn’t really playing the game at all. Imagine a marathon runner who starts a race along with hundreds of other runners. The prelusory goal is to cross the line before anyone else. Now suppose the runner in question furtively jumps into a car, drives to close to the finishing line, and, at the right moment, sneaks out of the car and crosses the line before the other racers. The question is this: has she actually participated in a marathon at all? Intuitively most of us will answer in the negative – the runner has achieved the prelusory goal by breaking the constitutive rules. Even if she is not revealed as a cheat, she has still not technically participated in the marathon. At least, this is Suits’s conclusion: “cheats recognize goals but not rules, [while] players recognise both rules and goals.” And since the rules are what make the game possible in the first place, cheats are not playing the game.

This brings us to the third and final aspect of games: the lusory attitude. Remember that the definition of a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. By playing the game, one agrees to abide by the rules, and this makes the playing the game possible – one agrees to overcome unnecessary obstacles by playing within the rules. And this is what games simply are: “The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end.” Thus we can see why cheats are not playing the game at all – by ignoring and breaking the rules, players are not taking up the correct lusory attitude. And if the voluntary agreement to play by the rules (i.e. the lusory attitude) is constitutive of the game itself, then cheats are not playing the game. Q.E.D.

Sorry, Luis. It seems that what Suits is saying is that when you dive, you’re playing a game that looks very much like football, but which actually isn’t football. Your “excess of zeal to achieve the prelusory goal” means that you’re not really playing football at all.

But is this actually the case? It seems that a counter-argument can be made. At one point in The Grasshopper, Suits mentions in passing a different kind of rule, the kind of rule “whose violation results in a fixed penalty, so that violating the rule is neither to fail to play the game nor [necessarily] to fail to play the game well, since it is sometimes tactically correct to incur such a penalty… for the sake of the advantage gained.”

Perhaps this better reflects what diving really is – there is a rule that stipulates that diving is prohibited, but also a rule that clearly states the penalty for offending. The same might be true of deliberate handball to prevent a goal. For example, in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, Ghana were… ah, you again, eh, Luis? 

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