Gamesmanship: genius or cheating?

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Boubacar Barry

The Ivory Coast were crowned victorious at the African Cup of Nations, defeating Ghana in a lengthy penalty shootout. The hero of the hour was their veteran goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who saved a penalty and then stepped up to score the decisive penalty to win the final. However Barry’s conduct in the penalty shootout attracted condemnation from pundits and fans alike as he delayed the proceedings on several occasions, apparently succumbing to the ravages of cramp in his leg (an unusual injury for a goalkeeper to suffer). Many interpreted these tactics as merely time-wasting, designed to unsettle Ghanaian players by drawing out their wait to take their penalty. Such behaviour could be interpreted as an example of gamesmanship, which is defined as the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage. So how much of this process is tactical cunning, or just plain cheating?

Barry’s antics recalled that of a former goalkeeper who was a memorable purveyor of gamesmanship in football, Bruce Grobbelar. Grobbelear was renowned for his ridiculous gesticulating, arm-waving and manic movements on the line, all with the intention of unnerving an opposition player walking up to take a penalty. His rationale for this was that although he was restricted to staying on his line, there was nothing to stop him moving around as much as possible as a distraction. This gamesmanship tactic was just as successful as it was for Barry at the weekend, as Grobbelar managed to prompt two Roma players to miss two penalties in the 1984 European Cup Final.

Distraction can manifest itself in many forms. In women’s tennis, grunting is often much maligned. The action of shrieking every time a ball has been struck does not seem to be a natural reaction a player should have each time they strike a ball and has been often criticised as a deliberate vocal ploy to distract other players, with Maria Sharapova the main culprit.

However gamesmanship does not always have to entail distracting the opposition. Instead, it can be more subtle, utilising a more psychological approach. Delaying play or deliberately slowing it down is another cunning tactic employed by some sportsmen. Seve Ballesteros was a master of this dark art in an already slow sport. Ballesteros famously would suddenly feel compelled to adjust his clothes or slowly survey his surroundings, creating a sense of build up for every shot. Naturally such a delay frustrated his opponents, forcing them to dwell too much on their next approach. It did not help Ballesteros’ opponents that he was also a fantastically gifted golfer as well.

Jimmy Connors used this tactic even more blatantly in tennis. He was known to take toilet breaks at stages in the game which was often interpreted as a way of breaking the momentum of an opponent, if the game was going against him. Whether he had an unusually small bladder or if it was purely psychological, only Connors will know.

Barry’s histrionics in the AFCON Final were not just a distraction, they were also an effective example of time wasting; a tactic that has been long used by football teams to run down the clock if they are in a winning position. Jose Mourinho’s teams have become well-known for this, employing the whole variety with slow goal kicks, goalkeepers holding onto the ball for an eternity, feigning injuries and even getting ball-boys in on the act.

However sometimes in football, gamesmanship can produce moments of genius as Louis Van Gaal demonstrated in the World Cup Quarter Final while managing Holland. Substituting his keeper Jasper Cilessen for deputy Tim Krul created the apparent impression that Krul was a specialist penalty stopper. In a match as charged as a World Cup quarter final and with players exhausted by nearly 120 minutes of football, this tactic proved to have a profound effect on the Costa Rican players. Managerial genius or sly gamesmanship was a debate that split pundits, writers and fans alike.

Gamesmanship is a natural consequence of competitive sport at the highest level. Players will do whatever they can to give themselves the slightest advantage, physically or psychologically, to win. It will continue to occur in every sport and irritate some fans, who may label it a form of subtle cheating. However as arguably proved in these examples and on Sunday, gamesmanship can prove to be decisive.

Photograph: wikipedia

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