By: Jon Townsend
Pardon the pun, but diving is an issue that needs to be tackled with the tenacity of a Billy Bremner chomp to the ankles and the severity of a Roy Keane lunge at the kneecaps. Surely, I jest, but hopefully you’ll get the point. Every football fan experiences the symptomatic effects of simulation—the seething anger escaping through clenched teeth and the increased heart rate an opposing team’s player triggers when they dive regardless of whether the referee takes the bait. Everyone sees the transgression. The old guard of football—comprised of former players and aging supporters must wonder where their beloved game has disappeared to these days.
Simulation has created a generation of defenders who flop on the ball when a striker pressures them from behind, strikers who look to fall at the slightest contact in or around the penalty area, and midfielders who’ve mastered the art of falling in the most congested areas of the pitch. The myriad offenses rain down controversy on referees and players alike with the omnipresent eyes of the world take their own dive into the world of controversy. Welcome to Planet Football.
The consistent element of diving, in modern football, is nearly every team has players guilty of the offense; predictably causing the condemning cynics to judge when other team’s players succumb to the sniper hidden in the floodlights’ deadly accurate shot while hiding their own blushes if diving proves to benefit their beloved club or country. Scores of young players, many of whom endeavored to emulate the skill yesterday’s great, ‘honest’ players displayed on the pitch now understand diving is a skill they’ll need in their repertoire if they want to play like football’s current stars. Such is the world of contentious football.
And isn’t that the beautiful ugliness of modern football? Diving is the double-edged sword the modern day supporter undoubtedly falls on. The ugly wave of hypocrisy washes over every football fan and the topic of diving is seldom more evident than it is presently. This summer, the world’s footballing elite will commence battle on the pitches of Brazil showcasing their own unique and beautiful style of football—and dark art of deception.
Perhaps what is most unsettling about diving is it’s an art form requiring an a rehearsed set of theatrical skills only seen onstage by paid and trained actors is played out (another pun, no apology) on football pitches by, well, paid and trained actors. Sitting in a pub with fans who’ve seen, lived and breathed the sport for over five decades, one can learn quite a lot about the evolution of football from the post-War era to the modern, money-infused version of the game worshipped the world over. They’ll tell you back then, players chomped at one another with the intensity of raging pitbull terriers frothing at the mouth to win and grind out a full-hearted effort worthy of merits regardless of outcome. The older fans will tell age-old tales of the epic clashes of football’s hard men against the mercurial talents coming through the ranks and across the borders. The battles pitted shin against shin, elbow against solar plexus, and forehead versus forehead. Blood was spilled—mixing well with the chewed up, pockmarked pitches of the time.
Any cognizant follower of the game knows that diving has always been there—in the referee’s periphery—enabling matches to be won and lost with well-rehearsed theatrics. Recently, simulation has shown its self-immolating side with a slew of non-calls that players like Luis Suarez, Ashley Young, Oscar, Ramires and Danny Welbeck have earned by letting their respective cunning con artist reputations precede them.
There was a time when “only foreigners” were guilty of simulation in the Premier League. As with all successful trends, diving has become so common and worthwhile for players that it has Premier League managers wearing two-faced masks, vehemently defending their own players whilst publicly condemning the opposition’s players in the same breath. This cyclical practice is akin to the pot calling the kettle black.
At the moment, it’s clear that diving is part of the game. But, does the global football community need accept this blight on the game? The better question ought to be, is diving a blight on the game? After all, it adds a palpable intrigue and a human element to a sport in a universe among others subject to the painful over-analyzing of in-game incidents disrupting the flow of a game while increasing the number of armchair experts shouting at television screens.
Therein is perhaps the most intriguing element of what the practice of diving has become and ultimately the ubiquitous effect this tactic has on football. Diving continues for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious being it largely goes unpunished save a sporadic on-field caution. In La Liga and Serie A, diving is simply a large part of the game. Not to take anything away from either league as the quality of football in each is top notch. In other leagues, scrutiny heeds way to acceptance of the practice. Simulation continues to be a reprehensibly excusable part of football.
Incidents in the Premier League this past week saw Luis Suarez appear to be interfered with by Samuel Eto’o in the penalty area only for Howard Webb to deem the infraction unworthy of a penalty. Of course, Luis Suarez, to his self-imposed detriment, has put himself in the murky waters of decision-making for any referee due to his past diving incidents.
Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck’s atrocious flop against Tottenham in the 58th minute went unpunished by Howard Webb in a 2-1 defeat to a resurgent Spurs side. Similar incidents involving Welbeck against Wigan in the Community Shield and Liverpool in the league suggest this won’t be the last time the striker flops. And should Welbeck be blamed? The current culture of promising young strikers is hinged upon the pressure to achieve results whether by hook or by crook. Two sides of the debate can rule a player diving is either cheating, or he’s doing his job and trying to help his team.
Ironically, a mere two days after Jose Mourinho accused Luis Suarez of ‘acrobatic swimming pool dives” after being fouled by Samuel Eto’o, Oscar was rightly booked for a horrendous pirouette as Southampton’s goalkeeper Kelvin Davis challenged for the ball in Chelsea’s victory. There exists the argument that players dive when they’re anticipating contact and in all honesty, as ridiculous as that sounds to the masses, it’s the only rehearsed explanation hiding the real motive—to con the referee. And the discussion seems to run out of steam once that specific reason is surrendered.
Football needs solutions to deter players from diving. Just as the motives for diving are many and unavoidable, the solutions should be implemented to preserve the game’s integrity. Maybe the answer is a sin bin, where the offending player must sit for a specified period of time while his team plays a man down. Retroactive fines for blatant simulation are possible, but a committee of objective and qualified persons would need to operate on the premise of consistency in a sub-area of the game that’s one of the most inconsistent. And let’s be honest, FIFA is unlikely to implement any rational changes regarding the Laws of the Game in a timely manner.
Diving and simulation have reached every facet of the game. The calamity diving causes is fascinating in ways, like a football match, nobody can predict. And in that uncertainty is the entertaining factor that draws people to football—embracing the good and accepting the bad. For all its detriments, diving has created an almost self-aware enigma—a beautiful ugliness that just might tip the scales in your favour.