Sometimes the difference in winning is what you can get away with....
They say soccer is a gentleman's sport played by thugs. I was thinking about that adage this weekend while ESPN was recaping the much celebrated "hand-of-god" goal by Argentina's Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup. It reminded me of another adage, this one from NASCAR, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
I can’t think of any other two sports where cheating is so openly considered part of the game -- and sometimes celebrated.
The blatant phantom soccer injuries are one thing, but I’m wondering whether we’ll see any type of repeat of the famous hand-ball goal that helped Argentina win the 1986 tournament.
The goal has been long celebrated in Argentina. Arguably the world's greatest player ever, Maradona, now Argentina's coach, himself called the goal divine intervention.
NASCAR crew chief Chad Knaus didn't claim divine intervention when he was caught fiddling with the aerodynamics of the No. 48 car. Just about everyone else in racing however seemed to shrug their shoulders as if to say, "That's racin."
Bending the rules has been part of NASCAR since its beginnings. Crew chiefs have tweaked tricked up stock cars and used nitrous oxide gas for extra horsepower. The sports roots date back to a time when bootleggers were trying to outrun the law.
One of those former bootleggers, racing legend Junior Johnson, told a reporter in Florida a few years ago that “Anybody who runs legal is gonna run behind…. It's not cheating…It's being competitive."
Of course, soccer and NASCAR are far from the only sports that have been permeated by cheating.
Think about all those Tour de France riders needing blood transfusions, pill popping track athletes, and steroid injecting baseball players. The NFL busted New England Patriots coach Bill Belicheck for videotaping the New York Jets defensive signals.
Still, I'd say, the practice is not as openly accepted as on the soccer pitch and racetrack.
In this year's World Cup, one of the likeliest candidates to pull off a hand of god goal would be Argentina's current star player, Lionel Messi. Often touted as the best player of his generation, Messi shares many traits with his coach. They both played internationally for Barcelona, wore No. 10 for the Argentina national team, and can dance with a soccer ball like few others on the pitch. And Messi even already has his own hand ball goal scored in a critical game while playing for Barcelona.
Messi has long struggled to get out from under his coach's shadow. And, in this tournament where the expectation is to win at any cost, he has yet to score a goal with his feet.