Nobody would begrudge Greece a bit of peace and joy.
The poster child for European economic ruin remains a mess, with high unemployment and the rise of aggressively right-wing thuggery. Greece’s presence at the World Cup matters deeply – it’s a distraction, a cause for hope that the tattered nation can somehow compete with the best in the world, at the world’s game.
But shame on Greece and shame on Georgios Samaras in particular. I don’t want to pick a fight, but some things have to be said.
Greece qualified for the next round here at the World Cup with an appalling act of trickery that allowed a penalty and then a goal, and therefore a last-minute triumph over the Ivory Coast.
At this World Cup, you have your biters (well, one mad man-child who bites), your divers and your tricksters. Samaras is more of a trickster than diver. He kicked a foot into the turf and fell over. He wasn’t operatic about it, just cynical. Then he popped up to score the penalty, and they partied in the streets in Greece.
The story was the last-minute penalty goal that sent Greece through – a surprise outcome. Well done, the Greeks, and all that. But there’s a point where we have to stand back from the OMG, aw-shucks appreciation of the shock result and look at the cynicism from which it came.
This World Cup opened with Brazil’s victory over Croatia, a victory tainted by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura’s decision that Dejan Lovren fouled Fred in the box, at a point where the match was finely balanced. It was obvious to everyone except the referee that little contact had been made and Fred had made a theatrical dive. It was play acting of an extravagantly transparent design. The penalty goal changed everything for Brazil. There is no point in tut-tutting about it. The game is brought into disrepute. Standards are lowered. It’s not a matter of play acting being unmanly, not sporting; it’s a matter of integrity.
It’s a fact that the culture of the game is different across countries and continents. That’s the way the world exists in all areas of life, outside soccer and inside it. Things can’t be the same the world over. We all know that difference is a blessing and curse.
And the fact is, in some countries, soccer can be enacted with as much theatre as it is done with athletic endeavour. A win can be achieved by a cunning ruse, and that’s thought acceptable. It is part of the game there. Teams intend to win. By any means necessary.
Living as we do in multicultural Canada, we acknowledge that in some countries and cultures, it is acceptable to exaggerate, to bluff, to be disingenuous for the sake of saving face, for family or for country.
We can be tolerant of all this. But if we condemn Luis Suarez for biting an opposing player, we are also obliged to look hard at the diving and trickery and call on players to be ashamed of themselves.
Not because sports are always some sort of life lesson in which the devious are found out and honesty is always honoured. But because once diving and trickery become acceptable and lead to success at the World Cup, it just gets worse.
It will certainly get worse in the Round of 16. Those are knockout games. Everything is at stake. No doubt somebody will be tempted to fake an injury, to eye the referee’s position and make an operatic fall to the ground. There is no next game; winning is everything now.
In the longer term, more consistent refereeing would help. Also the instigation of a system whereby an instant red card was issued for the player whose simulation of a foul was blatant. That would make players more cautious about attempting that dive, that clearly flagrant bit of trickery. They be more cautious about it and the World Cup would be better for that.
In the short term, of course, Georgios Samaras will express no regret for his actions. But he should, and Greece should know that the world knows it was a tainted win. Nobody begrudges a win if it’s an honest one.