Sunday, July 4, 2010

Soccer-riot diplomacy

The World Cup goes on in Kabul as it does elsewhere - though people here watch with less public passion than my friends in Accra or even Dhaka describe, I did nearly get into a traffic accident riding with a driver too distracted by Spain versus Switzerland to watch the road. However, the pundits' favorite sporting event (well, possibly second to the Olympics) should not go unmentioned on a blog devoted to armchair diplomacy, and so I offer my thanks to my friend SV for this guest post:

It’s a staple of the Cold War-era sports drama—a cheap shot by the villain. The East German hockey player who hacks the Minnesota farmboy’s knee on a breakaway play. The Soviet boxer who rabbit punches the Philadelphia southpaw after the bell. The Chinese martial artist who blinds the square-jawed Yankee soldier with quicklime powder in the final round of the kumite. Yet the fair player overcomes treachery for the win, mooting the more interesting question.

The limited diplomatic value of this metaphor has always been the same—that the hero can afford not merely to be just, and deliver a proportional response. But further, drawing on greater personal resource and greater strength of will, can afford to do more than win: to win cleanly and indisputably. To avoid, at all costs, the messier work of protest and diplomacy within a body of laws that may well turn out imperfect.

Nowhere is this limitation clearer today than in the public profile of Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, who catalyzed his nation’s first FIFA World Cup semifinal berth in forty years—at the expense of Ghana’s (and, indeed, Africa’s) first semifinal berth ever. In the closing moments of the quarterfinal, Suárez committed a handball block of Ghana’s point blank header on an open net. Though Suárez drew an immediate red card to leave the game, Asamoah Gyan of Ghana then missed the penalty kick, hitting the crossbar and taking the drawn match to a shootout. Uruguay won 4-2.

The prompt and shrill response to the “Hand of Suárez” and his standard one-game disqualification (meaning he could return for the final if Uruguay defeats the Netherlands) has been indignant. John Leicester’s AP editorial pretty well sums up the sentiment: FIFA should have banned him from the entire tournament, run him out of Johannesburg on a rail, and so on.

As with any system of many variables, what made this fiasco illustrative were the many that were controlled for. The score was tied 1-1. There was no time left in regulation-plus-stoppage for any subsequent plays. Both nations had finished second in their respective group stage matches, then defeated first seeds by 2-1 to reach the quarterfinal. The winning scorer in Uruguay-Korea had been Suárez; in Ghana-U.S., Gyan. The clearly-superior-hero narrative was as inapt as the David-and-Goliath. Because the teams were so well matched, any breach could, indeed, decide the outcome. Thus, there was no principled way to tell hero from villain, only by picking a gut-satisfying outcome and working backwards.

Under the circumstances, then, Suárez excelled as both a tactician and a strategist. Leicester himself admits (which is to say, accuses) that Suárez took a calculated risk, choosing to violate the most elemental law of the game and face swift and certain punishment rather than concede immutable defeat. He put his trust in the settled rule-punishment calculus, accepting the prescribed one-game disqualification. And he put his trust in his teammates, who took the opportunity to rally and win. What he didn’t do was go quietly into the night.

For its part, FIFA did well not to extend the disqualification to the finals as an act of deterrence, smacking as it would have of moving the goal-posts after the fact. Where any political decision will be decried anyway, simple expediency leads (ironically enough) back to principled application of the rules.

There is some weight to the counterargument that Ghana had the last clear chance and still blew it. More fundamentally, though, the animus against Suárez is that it was Ghana’s turn to win, that the rules of zero-sum diplomacy are simply not enough to right that injustice. And that’s the crazy part of the argument. There aren’t any turns.

(Chile versus Switzerland at the Kabul Health Club)

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