Skip to content

The Letter of the Law, the Spirit of the Game, and All That

I go on here occasionally about whether the jurisprudence of sport teaches anything about other kinds of jurisprudence, and vice versa.  A football (soccer) match yesterday in the English Premier League offers a relevant nugget for thought.

Manchester United was leading Tottenham Hotspur 1-0, late in the match, and Spurs were not playing the game as closely as the score indicated.  A United player, Nani, went down in the Spurs penalty box after light contact by a Spurs defender, Hutton.  Nani, believing (wrongly) that he had been fouled and earned a penalty kick, reached with his hand for the ball while he was lying on the ground, rolled it about, and then took his hand off the ball — the referee not having fallen for the dive.  The assistant referee raised his flag, apparently indicating that Nani had handled the ball and that Spurs should be awarded a free kick.   The Spurs goalkeeper, Gomes, collected the ball and set i on the ground for the free kick that he believed he was entitled to, then backpedaled a few steps, to the side of the goal, to prepare himself.  The referee, watching all of this, shrugged his shoulders at the scene, apparently to indicate, “well, get on with it.”  At that point, Nani seized the initiative, stepped up, and knocked the ball into the empty net for Manchester United.  The referee indicated a goal for Man U and confirmed the ruling after consulting with the assistant referee.   Apparently the referee had never blown his whistle.

Spurs (Gomes) played what they thought to be the spirit of the game and followed the linesman’s flag.  Man U (Nani) played what athletes are universally taught to play:  the whistle, or the letter of the law (in this case, the “laws” of soccer).

The Spurs players were apoplectic.  To no avail.

The game ended 2-0 for Manchester United.

The lesson?  A just result on the match, and unjust if technically correct outcome to the play above, and for many, another reason to hate Manchester United.