The thing about anything competitive is that someone will always look for an advantage. Sometimes they will push things too far and engage in the likes of performance enhancing drugs or financial doping in order to get ahead of their competitors. On other occasions, though, people don’t need to opt for anything quite as nefarious and instead will simply look towards the rules of the sport and see what they can do within the rules that might just put them ahead of the competition. Sporting authorities don’t love this, however, and often move to close such loopholes when they can.
When you consider the sheer number of sports that are played professionally, it is perhaps somewhat unsurprising that there have been more than a few occasions of competitors looking for loopholes and then taking advantage of them. It is better than being outright cheats, of course, not least thanks to the fact that anyone could have done it. But in a lot of cases it went against the spirit of the sport. Really, we should all be grateful for the authorities clamping down on the loopholes that give some an advantage over others, but those taking advantage probably won’t have felt like that.
1. Barbados v Grenada, 1994
Cup competitions often have weird and wonderful rules attached to them that are designed to make things simple and clear for all concerned. This was the case in the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup, where Barbados met Grenada in the semi-final of the tournament. In order to make it through to the final, Barbados needed to win by two clear goals. The rules of the competition said that any team winning on penalties would, for reasons known only to organisers, be classed to have won the game 2-0. This looked ideal for Barbados when they went 2-0 up, but got confusing when Grenada scored.
That scoreline meant that they were out of the competition when, with five minutes to go, the players realised that they would have a chance to progress if either team scored. If they made it 3-1 then they’d have their two goal advantage, whilst if it ended 2-2 then it would go to penalties and they’d have the chance to win them and take the 2-0 scoreline associated with a shoot-out win. This resulted in Barbados trying to score at either end of the pitch, all whilst Grenada were having to defend not only their own goal but also the Barbados goal.
When Barbados got the goal they needed, the Granada players realised that two could play at that game and also tried to score an own goal. It was obviously somewhat farcical, but in the end the Barbados team emerged triumphant and took the game to penalties. Barbados won, which meant that they achieved the 2-0 scoreline that they needed in order to make it to the final. Perhaps rather unsurprisingly, the rules were changed in the wake of the match, with the Grenada manager declaring that he felt ‘cheated’ and that the person who came up with the rule ‘must be a candidate for the madhouse’.
2. North Korea’s Goalkeeping Gamble
Does it class as a loophole being closed if the governing body doesn’t allow it to be taken advantage of in the first place? Maybe, but it is still worth telling you about what the North Koreans tried to do in the 2010 World Cup. FIFA’s rules stated that every country had to name three goalkeepers. That isn’t exactly out of the ordinary for major competitions, but the North Koreans decided that they didn’t want to use up one of their squad spaces with a player who probably wasn’t going to get any game time in the World Cup in South Africa.
As a result, the coach, Kim Jong-hun, only named two goalkeepers and entered the name of North Korean striker Kim Myong-won in the third goalkeeper position. The thought process was that it would boost their attacking options for the group stage, where they were due to come up against Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal. In many ways, it was a move of evil genius quite in keeping with a country whose leader once claimed that he’d scored 11 holes-in-one on a golf course. Unfortunately for North Korea, and the player in question, it didn’t work when FIFA realised what they were up to.
The governing body of the sport made an announcement that said, “The three players listed as goalkeepers can only play as goalkeepers during the World Cup and cannot play outfield. This will be communicated to the teams in the team arrival meetings and will be enforced on match days.” Because the squad could not be changed unless there was a serious injury, it meant that Kim Myong-won was only allowed to play as a goalkeeper if he made it onto the pitch. The loophole, such as it was, was shut before it had even been opened for long enough for the North Koreans to use it.
3. Chelsea’s Long Contracts
Most football fans don’t really realise how footballers contracts work. The thought process is that a club signs a player and pays the selling club the amount requested, but that isn’t really true. In most cases, teams agree to pay the selling club the money concerned over a chosen period of time, which is usually several years. Similarly, the amount of money that a player is being paid can be stretched out over the course of their contract. The advent of Financial Fair Play meant that clubs had to try to think outside the box in order to stick within the rules outlined by FFP.
Chelsea managed this most famously in the wake of the club being bought by Todd Boehly and splashing the cash on lots of different players. In January of 2023, the London club signed Enzo Fernandez, Mykhaylo Mudryk and Benoit Badiashile on contracts that lasted either seven or eight years. Although it was an entirely legal move, it was one that many felt was one designed to allow them to get around the FFP rules that were in place and likely to affect the club after making so many signings. The President of La Liga, Javier Tebas, accused them of ‘cheating’.
UEFA, always the arbiters of what is right and good (said no one ever), soon cottoned on to what Chelsea were up to and moved to close the loophole that they had been exploiting. They governing body for sport in Europe said that clubs were no longer allowed to spread the cost of buying a player over more than five years. This means that a player signed on an eight-year contract, which would be put onto the books as £12.5 million a year if they cost £100 million and had signed an eight-year deal, would be £20 million a year for five years. A short-lived bit of nonsense.
4. The 1981 Australian Cricket Team
In the world of cricket, there is such a thing as the ‘spirit of the game’. Anyone that saw Johnny Bairstow getting out in the 2023 Ashes series will doubtless remember countless discussions about exactly that. It is the sort of thing that is brought up when something is technically legal according to the rules, but doesn’t feel right. This is perhaps best demonstrated by what happened during a match between Australia and New Zealand in 1981. The Aussies were up against their neighbours in best-of-five series in the final of the World Series Cup.
Having split the first two matches, the teams came up against one another in the third Test and the final over required the Kiwis to score 14 runs in order to tie the match or 15 for the victory. Greg Chappell, the Australian captain, selected his younger brother, Trevor, to bowl. It started well for the New Zealand side, who cut into the Aussie lead and would have tied the game if they’d scored a six on the final ball. Greg spoke to Trevor and told him to bowl underarm, forcing Brian McKechnie, who was on strike, to play a defensive shot that handed Australia the win.
The crowd booed the Aussies off, whilst Richie Benaud, the famed commentator and former Australian captain, said, “That’s one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.” Even the Prime Minister of New Zealand, weighed in, with Robert Muldoon referring to as a ‘most disgusting incident’. He said, “It was an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow.” In response, the International Cricket Council decided to ban bowling underarm, with the only exception being if both teams had agreed to it beforehand.
5. The Pink Mercedes
At the start of the Formula One season in 2020, Racing Point’s new car turned some heads when it was unveiled. That isn’t all that surprising, considering how much it costs to make an F1 car, but what car the eye in this instance was the look of the vehicle. To the casual observer, it looked exactly like the previous season’s winning car that Mercedes-Benz had put on the track. That, it turned out, was because it was a copy of the winning car that Mercedes had put on the track the previous season. That wasn’t a rule break in and of itself, though.
According to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body of the sport, copying another car’s design wasn’t illegal, provided you didn’t copy the ‘listed parts’, which were specific elements of the car that you needed to ensure were original. Renault lodged a complaint against Racing Point and the FIA launched an investigation. Despite the claims of Racing Point that they had only copied the Mercedes from photographs, a claim that McLaren Racing’s Zak Brown dubbed ‘bullshit’, the FIA found that the rear break ducts were illegal copies.
The result was a fine of €400,000 and 15 points docked from the Racing Point’s Constructor Championship total. Mercedes said that they had provided Racing Point with the information about the rear break ducts because they were not listed parts at the time. They were allowed to continue racing the car for the rest of the season, but the FIA made a decision to change the rules in order to stop such a thing from happening again. It was decreed that constructors were not allowed to use photographs to stop teams from copying winning cars, meaning the ‘pink Mercedes’ was the last such copy to be seen.