Does the punishment fit the crime? Sanctions in soccer

Does the punishment fit the crime?: Sanctions in Association football

Roy Hay

Uruguayan national team and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez is in the news because he has been banned for ten matches for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic. The sanction has provoked an outpouring of rage and defence by Liverpool manager Brendon Rogers and the CEO Ian Ayre. The former says the Football Association has ‘punished the man rather than the incident’. He is right of course and that is exactly what should be done in such cases. Why? Because the man has previous and while a one-off incident might be dealt with entirely on its merits a serial offender needs to have his overall behaviour considered as in a court of law by the sentencing judge. The jury may only be presented with the facts of the specific case and be adjured to ignore any other information, but the decision on the penalty for those found guilty, by admission of the alleged offender or after trial, rests with the presiding magistrate.

In fact, according to the written reasons of the FA Regulatory Commission which determined the sentence in this case, there is no mention of Suarez’s previous misdemeanours and they say it was the truly exceptional circumstances of this case which led to the additional seven match ban on top of the automatic three match penalty for violent conduct.[1] The committee, which was made up of a lawyer, Thura KT Win, FA Council member, Roger Pawley, and former player, Brian Talbot, did not take into account Suarez’s past record—which included a seven-game ban for biting while he was a player at Ajax— and judged the altercation with Ivanovic in isolation.[2] So if this is true then the Rogers’ objection falls, but the issues of whether the sentence fits the crime and who should determine it and on what grounds remains.

In 1994, Glasgow Rangers’ striker Duncan Ferguson was sent to jail for three months for head-butting an opponent, John McStay of Raith Rovers, on the field. There were complaints about the severity of that sentence, but the man was on probation for two previous off-field offences at the time. Willie Woodburn was suspended sine die by the Scottish Football Association in 1954 following a string of on-field incidents. It is possible that this sanction was ultra vires and it was not challenged in court because of the player’s loyalty to the club he played for. Woodburn said subsequently that he should have appealed the ban in court and indicated that would do so in the different circumstances of 1968 when interviewed by leading journalist Hugh McIlvanney for a book by John Arlott.[3]

Suarez grew up in Uruguay before moving to Groningen in Holland and then via Ajax Amsterdam to Liverpool. While in Holland he was banned for biting an opponent and last year he was sanctioned by the Football Association for racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United. On the latter occasion his manager Kenny Dalglish flew to his defence so rapidly and vehemently that he was told to pull his head in because of the effect it was having on the club’s brand.[4] Playing for Uruguay in the world Cup in South Africa, Suarez saved a certain goal for Ghana by handling the ball on the goal-line. Ghana missed the penalty and Uruguay, minus Suarez who was correctly sent off, won the subsequent shoot-out to clinch the game. Suarez quickly went from being pilloried for the offence to a national hero for saving his side.

You could easily believe that this man has no respect for the laws of the game or the society of which he is a member. He wants to win at all costs and will do anything to achieve the result. His manager puts a somewhat different gloss on the behaviour of his star player.

This is a guy who I see on a daily basis trying very hard. His two passions in life are his family and Liverpool Football Club. He throws his life into that. It is part of his make-up – you can’t change that – but I genuinely think he is trying to adapt those traits he has grown up with as a kid to life and the culture here. Each time he makes a step forward we find ways to beat him with a stick and beat him down. I can understand if he felt like that [wanting to quit England] in a moment of reflection.[5]

The ‘traits he has grown up with as a kid’ or ‘his impulse takes over,’ reflect the widely-held belief in England that Uruguayans and Argentinians like Diego Maradona will cheat in any way they can to achieve a result. There are enough examples to sustain this view for consideration but such stereotyping is not very helpful. Uruguay has won the World Cup twice playing excellent football within the laws and spirit of the game and reached the semifinal in South Africa in 2010. On the other side of the ledger there was an infamous episode in Mexico in 1986 when Uruguay kicked Scotland off the park to secure a scoreless draw and an earlier battle with Glasgow Celtic in 1967 involving the leading Uruguayan club Racing.

So it is not clear that Uruguayans are uniquely culpable of bending or breaking the rules to achieve results, but the belief persists. Whether it was part of the unconscious mind-set of the members of the tribunal which imposed the penalty on Suarez is imponderable but the penalty itself was not excessive and in line with those meted out in recent seasons to among others the England captain Rio Ferdinand for missing a drug test and Suarez himself for racially abusing Evra.

[1] The Football Association and Mr Luis Suarez, Liverpool FC, The Decisions and Reasons of the FA Regulatory Commission, 25 April 2013,

[2] Dominic King, ‘Sorry Suarez will not appeal ten match ban,’ Daily Mail, 26 April 2013,

[3] John Arlott, ed., Soccer: The Great Ones: Studies of Eight Great Football Players, Pelham, London, 1968, pp. 89–106.

[4] Now writing for the Daily Mirror, Dalglish has attacked the independence of the FA Regulatory Commission. Daily Mirror, 27 April 2013,

[5] Rogers later added, ‘He is a genuine good-hearted man, who from time-to-time his impulse will take over. We’ll see it again, in top sports people.’ King, ‘Sorry Suarez’.

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