There are the published rules of the game, like the offsides rule, no hands, and so on. And then there are the actual rules of the games- the ones that aren’t necessarily published but guide the way we act and interact with the published set of rules. These unspoken rules, or norms, are what form soccer ethics.
The ethics of soccer is a complicated topic to approach. First of all, soccer is a global sport, so its ethical lines transcend the boundaries of nations. Yet, regional differences clearly play a role in what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ action in sports as well as in daily life.
However, there are definite cases of ethical lines and boundaries. I am going to look at two separate instances- one where a rule was broken and there were no ramifications, and one where a rule was broken and punishment was swiftly and strictly administered.
CASE ONE: A broken rule with mixed reactions
On the 22nd of June, 1986, Argentina defeated England in a World Cup quarterfinal, partly in thanks to a controversial goal scored by Diego Maradona. The goal, referred to as the ‘Hand of God,’ was clearly in violation of the rules, as video shows. Neither referee were sure at the time whether or not it had been a violation, but videos show Maradona’s use of his hand. The goal illicited intense reactions from soccer fans- some celebrated the goal, others decried it- but no further action was taken. So, while the act wasn’t necessarily a ‘good’ one, it wasn’t deemed ethically wrong enough for outside entities to step in.
So what we’re left with is an example of when breaking the rules is morally acceptable. Maradona used his hand, in clear violation of basic football rules, but he wasn’t punished for it. His goal counted, the win stood, and there were no other ramifications. While some people were upset, it isn’t all that clear whether it was English fans that were more upset over losing because of the illegal goal or if they actually rejected Maradona’s rule-breaking goal on principle. Rather, his goal is more often met with general amusement, sly smiles, and blame on the refs for not calling it- not on the player for trying it .
This stands in stark contrast with Case Two.
CASE TWO: A broken rule resulting in punishment
In a match against Italy during the 2014 World Cup, Uruguayan player Luis Suarez appeared to have bitten Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. This type of violent action against an opposing player is clearly against the rules- it’s prohibited, just as the use of a hand is also prohibited. Yet, this act caused a stronger reaction in response. The act is condemned and abhorred, and Suarez was, after the game was over and the incident reviewed, suspended from “all football-related activity” for four months, as well as having to pay a fine for the incident . This action was strictly met with punishment- not amusement.
Suarez’s action crossed some unspoken ethical line. But that ethical line doesn’t seem so clear.
Perhaps the line is injury- that doing something that would likely injure an opponent is considered unethical. This seems like a compelling option. After all, we like to think that this is true, and we even act like it is at times. For instance, players ‘flop’ or fake extreme pain to increase the likelihood that the other player will be reprimanded and have a foul called on them.
But is it really as simple as that? If we really, truly believe that intentionally causing injury is wrong, then why do we allow and encourage certain types of behavior that almost always result in injury? For example, slide tackles are painful, and I would argue that, to some extent, a player that slide tackles another intends to cause some slight form of injury. That could be a scraped knee, a jolt from hitting the ground hard, pressure on the ankles, and so on. And some people even encourage particularly painful-yet still legal- slide tackles for the very reason that they will hinder the activity of that player in some way if they are executed correctly.
So maybe ‘causing injury’ was too simplistic of an ethical line to draw. Perhaps it’s a little deeper, or a more theoretical idea of ‘wrong.’ Perhaps people rejected Suarez’s act as opposed to Maradona’s because the biting was inhumane or animalistic. Yet, again, I can think of a million examples where the same people that condemn Suarez also fight each other like vicious animals in the stands, hurtle horrific insults at the athletes, and plenty of other inhumane activities like that. So perhaps that’s not it either.
In sum, there are a couple of things that we take away from this discussion. While it is unclear what ethical line Suarez crossed to elicit such a harsh response, it is clear that the rules of the game aren’t inherently ‘right’ or ‘moral.’ There are instances where breaking the rules doesn’t really matter, because people don’t tie any deeper ethical significance to the rule in the first place. Thus, soccer ethics is separate from the rules of the game.
Furthermore, it’s very difficult to quantify or explain the ethical norms and ideas surrounding the game of football. Football is a global sport influenced by a global span of ideas of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There are regional differences, ethnic differences, personal differences, and so on that add to the difficulty of pinpointing an objective ethical line. But while it’s hard to clearly explain or see what our ethical ideas are, the paradox of it all is that ethics dictate our actions (related to soccer and beyond) more than the rule of law could ever do.