Divers Anonymous

Divers Anonymous

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.

Luis Suarez — The Marmite Man

The Two Sides of Luis Suarez
Jonathan Townsend
December 21, 2013

Since his arrival to the red side of Merseyside in 2010, Luis Suarez has shown both sides of the persona making him one of the most polarizing figures in world football. Liverpool Football Club has remained steadfast in their loyalty to its prized asset when many thought the club could have and should have parted ways with the Uruguayan. His relationship with his peers, employers and supporters certainly has experienced its hills and valleys – and for good reason. When Suarez is focused, he’s unstoppable in ways rivaling the genius of Lionel Messi, the power of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the silky ingenuity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But what makes Suarez’s footballing displays so unique? For starters, Suarez’s proclivity to retreat deep into the midfield or out on the wing to retrieve the ball only to turn and put defenders on their heels is a quality rarely seen by modern strikers. What makes Luis Suarez a special talent is his versatility to operate as a one-touch fast-break player looking for that surgical pass on his way to goal, or as a striker who dribbles with direct intent to make defenders commit early. Perhaps the most impressive quality Suarez possesses is the ways he scores goals. Be it deadly free-kicks, technical six-yard box finishing, headers, long-range swerving half-volleys, or displaying futsal-esque dribbling abilities through a gauntlet of lunging defenders sets him apart with everyone save Cristiano Ronaldo.

Then there’s the well-documented dark side of Luis Suarez. The few analysts who knew Suarez’s incident history stemming from head-butting a referee when playing for Uruguayan side Nacional braced themselves for the rollercoaster of outbursts spliced with brilliant performances the player would undoubtedly bring to Holland. Unlike any other top player, though, Luis Suarez has the ability to tap into the primal beast deep within him instantaneously, which is perhaps what’s most perplexing about him. His fiery demeanor resembles a different style of football seen in the modern level. Suarez plays with an edge unseen on the lush fields of European football, but displayed on the daily in South American street soccer. What makes him hated also makes him great.

At Ajax, Suarez had his acclimation-induced struggles on the field, yet he still slammed home 111 goals in 159 appearances. During his tenure with Ajax filled up the disciplinary side of the stat sheet with a slew of cautions, dismissals and numerous off-the-ball incidents including the biting of PSV’s Ottman Bakkal – leading to the national Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf to dub Suarez “The Cannibal of Ajax”.

But for a club like Liverpool, who in 2010 found itself in a footballing freefall, acquiring the services of Luis Suarez assured one thing: goals. Liverpool has made a statement of monumental intent by signing Suarez to a contract extension until 2018 at the cost of raising the Uruguayan hitman’s weekly pay from £120,000 to £200,000. Today, he instantly justified that wage increase with a two-goal one assist display against Cardiff City. Supporters of Liverpool must see this as a wonderful piece of business and they aren’t wrong in their belief that securing the prized asset most likely guarantees a top four finish.

However, beneath the surface of this glamorous deal, Liverpool have set a multi-pronged warning to world football – the Liverbird is rising from the ashes. This deal not only secures Suarez’s services for the immediate future, but it also prevents ridiculous backhanded inquiries flooding through the door like Arsenal’s dubious £40,000,001 “offer” last summer.

For all the critics Suarez has for his disciplinary issues, no one doubts his footballing ability and his mental strength to be jeered more than he will ever be cheered. He’s not a shining example of sportsmanship (recall is impromptu goalkeeping display against Ghana in 2010 and the visible jubilant celebration after the missed penalty) football wants its stars to become. He’s not respected at the level of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps, nor should he be, but the point is that Luis Suarez doesn’t care.

Liverpool meshed as a cohesive unit with Daniel Sturridge leading the frontline during Suarez’s suspension the biting incident with Branislav Ivanović, dodged a bullet. At the time of the incident, Suarez was competing with Robin Van Persie for the league’s golden boot. He was in contention to be the PFA player of the year (although, let’s be honest, he never had a chance) and his stock was rising as his reputation fell. That inverse relationship is rarely seen in modern football. Had Suarez won the golden boot award the fact was evident – there was no saving Liverpool’s dreadful campaign last year. To that effect, he may have sought greener pastures when the opportunity arose, but Liverpool held an important bargaining chip.

The club, team and most of the supporters stuck with him as his public castigation intensified. Brendan Rodgers stood firm in his support for the troubled striker as the team rallied on without him, finding a new goal scoring hero in the revived and resurgent Daniel Sturridge. Many questioned whether Liverpool was where strikers went to commit career suicide as the Anfield faithful were still far from happy at the departure of Fernando Torres and the poor signing of Andy Carroll. The cause for their concern was palpable because last year, Liverpool looked like a side destined for seventh place finishes. Out of the coveted top four and without so much as even a sniff of challenging for the league title, Liverpool deservedly trudged through the storm of speculation.

Fast forward to September 29, 2013 when Suarez returned to league action away at Sunderland scoring a goal in his return. The goals haven’t stopped. Regardless of where Liverpool finish this campaign, the jackals will come sniffing hoping to steal Suarez away, and Liverpool, for all their tenacity, stick-to-itiveness and loyalty, might be resigned to cash in if the offer is anywhere near the Gareth Bale realm of monetary wheeling and dealing.

With no way of predicting the future, Liverpool do look likely to finish in the top four barring any injuries or almost inevitable suspensions for Suarez. The preposition of determining the club’s real quality lies in the string of performances that historically have plagued Liverpool in the Premier League era – compete and beat mid-table teams, lose to the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea, and victories against the bottom dwellers. There is no better chance for Liverpool to build on their early-season success. The recent dismantling of an expensively misguided and mismanaged Tottenham side proved the team can play the opposition off the park without Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard on the pitch away from Anfield.

Time will tell if Luis Suarez has learned to keep his mouth shut to prevent any racial slur accusations and further biting incidents and increase the club’s chances of earning a Champions League spot. How will the press and public deal with a Luis Suarez with whom they harbour so much collective criticism if he’s able to stay out of trouble, on the pitch, and most importantly –on the score sheet?

According to scoring projections, the striker is on pace to score upwards of 40 goals this year in the Premier League alone, which leaves would-be suitors wondering what type of damage he’d unleash on defenses in La Liga which would most likely be the destination for Suarez should he depart Anfield. That very question is the reason the saying, “Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him,” perfectly suits the two sides of Luis Suarez.


American Underdogs

The Brazil 2014 World Cup draw ended the speculation and guessing. The match-ups drawn from each bowl during caused a collective gasp heard globally as the fixtures were assigned and the participating countries learned their World Cup 2014 fate.

For the United States, was the fate of a country still struggling to establish itself on the global stage of world football all but sealed? The wider sentiment most Americans have approaching Brazil is not a vote of confidence, that part is clear. What’s unclear is why the nation feels this way.

Group G, comprised of top-seeded Germany, playoff winners Portugal, a gritty Ghanaian side and the proudly dubbed underdog USA, looks tough because it is tough. The problem with the fixture list in Group G surely rests partly in the tenacity of the sides within it – but the real issue, for the USA, lays thousands miles away on American soil.

The cynics love a talking point. The surge of Group G talking points ranged from impossibility of isolating Cristiano Ronaldo to pointing out the fact that the Yanks were ousted from the previous two World Cups by far more tenacious Ghana sides and, of course, there’s the revived German Nationalmannschaft; capable of dissecting teams with their trademark German efficiency and discipline. Those are the valid talking points.

Enter the American concerns. American journalists and pundits pointed out (in the most American of ways) the total number of miles the USMNT will to travel, emphasizing it’s the most of any team at the tournament. Why should such a point hold relevance at this stage of World Cup discussions? Because that’s how the American football following calculates success and failure. This over-analyzing of facts is an aspect of sporting culture only America recognizes and oddly revels in; and it uncovers a real problem with the US game.

To the outsider looking in, the immersion of such facts and figures into American sporting culture seems ridiculous. To Americans, this is typical sports conversation and analysis fodder. As The Jam proudly sang about the slice-of-life aspects of British society in their 1980 hit ‘That’s Entertainment’, the American sports machine works best with entertainment greasing its gears.

Without these supplemental talking points, Americans might be put off solely talking about the footballing matters the country faces. Without a doubt, Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation has put its best foot forward and drastically improved the quality, development, presentation and ultimately the final product of US soccer since the 1990 qualification campaign and subsequent World Cup appearance.

But why does Ghana strike fear into the hearts of both American players and supporters alike? Has the West African nation with a population of 24 million people and a per capita income under $2,000 unlocked the secrets of world football? Hardly, but they have unlocked the USA. Twice.

Football in the States, regardless of its increasing popularity and expanding domestic league, has reached a period of sustained growth nearing plateau. The development of players is still lost in the mire of a nation devoid of a definitive footballing style. American sporting culture is obsessed with winning and high scores.

African, South American, European and Asian players play for love of the game. Outside of America, football exists in tight communities revolved around football and national pride. Many players don’t know another way of life and football is their escape and best sporting option.

Brazilians take pride in joga bonito, the Dutch pride themselves on the mechanical perfection of individual technique allowing their acclaimed Total Football to decimate opposing sides, while the Spanish have embraced the tiki-taka football (which ironically stems from the Dutch system and players from the 1970s onwards).

This discrepancy is entirely cultural. American players learn the game haphazardly to expose them to the revolving door of available sports and activities. A player might be great, but he may also have to play tennis, baseball or American football.

From a parenting standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with promoting sporting diversity and exposing a child to many different hobbies and sports. The result, however, is a nation comprised and armed with an ethos where players find themselves as Jacks of all trades and masters of none. A nation lacking a footballing identity.

At youth level, players are taught to win at all cost, even at the expense of learning the fundamentals. It seems that one singular purpose of playing the sport, in America, is results-driven and orientated. For far too long, the injection of misguided coaching held America back.

Development of individual technique, tactical awareness, football-specific fitness and consistency on the pitch take the back-burner in place of winning. The biggest, strongest and fastest players are put up top to score as many goals as possible whilst ignoring the fundamentals – but that has changed.

Until recently, youth systems failed the American player by stressing the Victory At All Costs doctrine throughout the scholastic ranks. In many of the top footballing countries, youth teams seldom keep score until the age of 15. Why? Because before that age, score doesn’t matter in comparison to total player development. The approach is both systematic and formulaic. The emphasis on individual achievement matters little compared to the collective development not of a team, but a generation of players.

There was a time when the talking heads of football punditry put stock in the argument that American success at a World Cup revolved around cultivating a team comprised of pure athletes. In other sports, pure athleticism might suffice, but in football, that argument couldn’t be more inaccurate.

Developing a mind for the game, understanding patterns of play that unlock tactically sound defences has been absent for generations at the developmental level. This essential approach is now implemented through a rejuvenated effort to develop footballers rather than winners.

The evidence is at the youth national team levels, especially their most recent success in the Nike Showcase Friendlies where the U17 YNT dominated a U17 Brazilian side (comprised of mainly U15 players) to the point where the Brazilians literally gave up at the 85 minute mark. There is progress, but the real question remains: is there enough?

Developing technique is paramount in all of the football powerhouses. There, players are groomed from an early age to appreciate and share the ball. In America, this practice is just starting to seep through the younger levels. In the results-driven world, American youth players aren’t exposed to enough quality competition.

Before the current academy system, the majority of the professional players the country produced hailed from the collegiate system. An obvious problem with college ball is the season lasts only about four months with maybe one month of pre-season conditioning.

This system, which allows promising players to gain a valuable education (which most will inevitably need), puts them developmentally behind players of the same age abroad playing at least nine months of the calendar year, thus expediting their speed of play and maintaining consistent levels of competitiveness absent in US players. If the USSF is smart, it should hold discussions with the NCAA and NAIA to extend the collegiate season. The truth is, it’s unlikely to happen.

So how does America cross this divide? The answer is the US Soccer Development Academy system which gives elite players in specific areas a chance to play year round with optimal training and competition schedules. The problem with this system, besides it being in its infancy, is what Jürgen Klinsmann identified in 2010 as a soccer analyst.

Then, he pointed out that America is the only country in the world where it costs families thousands of dollars to play for the best clubs. The country is literally pricing its talent out of the sport it was supposed to develop to be world beaters by 2010. That time has come and gone, but the inadequacy still exists.

There is, however, promise implementing such a system as it gives MLS a direct funneling channel to develop and foster young talent to carefully integrate within the ranks of individual clubs. In time, this system should prove a better alternative than the college route for promising players – but it must remain reserved only for the elite players, not just players from affluent backgrounds or those lucky enough to receive financial donations to fund their expenses.

As it stands, the US Soccer Development Academy tempts players who want to use it as a stepping stone to the aforementioned hit and miss collegiate system. The signs of its effectiveness are promising but not definitive.

The other glaring issue the USSF must face is the MLS calendar, which lies in a partial juxtaposition with Europe’s top leagues. MLS hardly has the clout to amend its schedule. The top American players must supplement their fitness and level of competition by either plying their trade abroad or going out on loan at the conclusion of their domestic campaign.

Landon Donovan, surely a player with his best years behind him, should be on a plane back to Merseyside and at the very least, training with Everton. Clint Dempsey’s decision to return to MLS after a wonderful spell in England’s top flight still mystifies the masses – but his return to Fulham on loan could see him recapture the form he demonstrated in his first spell at the club in time for the World Cup.

To further complicate the selection process of MLS-based players, how is it that Mike Magee, the league’s MVP, does not get a call-up to the national pool for a training camp? Magee, a player with two MLS Cups to his CV, has played with and against the league’s best players and continues to garner respect for his silky and lethally instinctive play. His experience would definitely provide a new attacking element to the national side in preparation for Brazil. The frustration lies more with Klinsmann’s apparent lack of interest in a player with quality attacking ability.

With regards to those playing abroad, a critical eye as to what teams secure their services needs closer examination. For instance, Brek Shea isn’t gaining the valuable experience sitting on the bench at Stoke City, having recently failed to even be named to the 18-man roster for the League Cup against Manchester United. Jozy Altidore has forgotten how to score goals at Sunderland, the underperformance of Americans abroad is peaking in an important year.

As important as it is for the top American players to play in the top leagues overseas, what good does it do for a player to be buried in the depth chart or be consigned to sporadic performances? The disconnect between players from the MLS and European-based players is apparent on the pitch.

Success in Brazil depends on three main factors: controlling the midfield, clinical finishing up front, and fitness. Praise should be heaped upon Jürgen Klinsmann and his staff for their precise attention to fitness in his training camps. But at this level, fitness should be a given.

Some might think Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation deserve the plaudits they receive for signing Jürgen Klinsmann to a contract extension. The extension is the practical move for a man entrusted with not only leading the national team in the next World Cups, but reaffirms the united front Klinsmann and USSF share in developing a new generation of players capable of becoming a top international team.

Klinsmann’s vision blends the best components the country has to offer in athletically talented players willing to learn from a legend with the tried and tested developmental practices Germany utilized to revitalize its own national program.

At a glance, Group G is one of three Groups of Death. Just like every team in the group, the US needs to accept that and begin to identify a way to maximize its preparation and performances before June.

The underdog role is one that resonates well with American players and supporters alike, but the day where America can look at themselves with the confidence and swagger of the other teams in Group G is in the near future. Perhaps the proving ground for the US is less on paper and more on the soil in Brazil.

By Jon Townsend. Follow me on Twitter @jon_townsend3