Sometimes, the smart plays are the illegal ones, but more on that in a moment. For now, let’s take in what happened today at KC Stadium in Hull, where Ahmed Elmohamady drew the ire of a nation moments before halftime with this Diego Maradona impression:
The great thing about this clip is not only what Elmohamady tries, but it’s the ensuing celebration, followed by the (unfortunately, predictable) moral outrage of the commentators. “That’s shocking,” one of the duo emotes. “That’s absolutely shocking. That’s a three-match ban, for me,” as if an intentional handball deserves the same punishment as violent conduct. It wasn’t even a denial of an opponent’s goal. But who knows? In English soccer, a three-match ban may actually happen.
This is the type of incident that always draws moral outrage from England, who wasted so much time lamenting what Thierry Henry did against Ireland in 2009, or what Luis Suárez did versus Ghana at the 2010 World Cup. Never mind Henry’s action was key in qualifying his country for the World Cup, and Suárez’s intentional hand ball helped his team into the semifinals (and earned him a red card). There was just no way to justify that kind of gamesmanship, we were told, even though Suárez’s act helped turn a sure defeat into a place in the final four, once his team won the penalty shootout.
Suárez dramatically increased his team’s chances of winning by committing the foul, probably in full knowledge of the punishment that would come. Given the costs, benefits, and risks, it was the obvious move.
Elmohamady’s scenario wasn’t as clear-cut, yet at the point when it was obvious his leap didn’t have the height to reach the cross, he could either (a) let the ball go and hope a teammate beats the keeper to it, or (b) take a chance that his handball would go unnoticed. Both scenarios seem like slim possibilities, but you can understand why the Egyptian wideman might have considered odds of the first succeeding being slim. Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul was already in position to at least punch the ball, if it got beyond Elmohamady.
The second scenario, however, had a much better chance of success. In the maelstrom that is a goalmouth fight for a cross, it’s not difficult to imagine a handball going unnoticed, and although the ball could go off his arm and high or wide of goal, odds were good that his redirection would at least find goal. And it did, though his handball was called, earning him the expected yellow card.
The entire plan was a bit of a longshot, but probably less so than hoping a teammate behind him would beat Krul to the ball. If, say, the probability of the first happening is around four or five percent while the odds of the second succeeding were closer to 15 or 20 percent, it was worth the chance, even if the potential cost was carrying a yellow card for the final 45 minutes. (If should go without saying that these numbers are hypothetical, but this being the internet, it doesn’t.) Balanced against the potential of an equalizing goal, it may have been the smart move.
My biggest question is whether Elmohamady really knew Krul was in position behind him. His back is to the Newcastle keeper, his eyes are focused on the cross. If he can’t know where Krul is, the probabilities Elmohamady should assume change dramatically. He has to assume that one of (his three) teammates behind him can play that cross. He has to assume they have a chance to beat Krul, which may mean the legal scenario, given the best assumptions, would beat out the chances of his handball going unnoticed. Still, given the type of awareness these athletes often exhibit, Elmohamady might have had some idea of Krul’s whereabouts.
But what about the ethical aspect to this? I don’t want to dismiss that entirely, but it’s not as clear as yelling “rules of the game!” until the bartender finally cuts you off. The rules of the game prescribe certain outcomes for specific actions. Elmohamady likely took that into consideration and acted accordingly. It’s hard to imply somebody’s ethically repugnant when the costs and benefits are defined by the rules.
For me, play to that edge of the rules takes my personal enjoyment out of a game, but for others, particularly those so single-minded as to devote their lives to being high-level professionals, those niceties are often discarded luxuries. And often, those luxuries are replaced by an expectation that you’ll do everything within reason to achieve a team’s goals.
Is risking another player’s health while sliding through his legs within reason? No. Violent conduct’s all about giving amoral souls another disincentive to being so “team-oriented.” But is turning into a volleyball player for a split second within reason? Yeah. Definitely. And given the risks to others around you, the punishment should be in proportion.
So Elmohamady didn’t succeed. He won’t join the pantheon of hand ball greats, like Suárez, Henry, and Don Diego. But within the context of the moment, it was a justifiable decision, even if it’s one we’d all replicate.