Offside, 19 October
After 6 October, the English will never have the moral authority to complain about diving in football again.
‘The Wimbledon players tend to stay on their feet’ remarked my friend, after a player had stumbled but not fallen when tackled by a Palace defender in the penalty box. It is a sign of the times that a player who doesn’t dive is now considered remarkable.
At the end of September 2001 the issue of diving became a huge talking point, following a spate of controversial penalty incidents – notably Robbie Savage’s ecstatic celebration after being brought down for a penalty, and Nicola Amoruso’s theatrical dive that earned Juventus a last-minute spot kick against Celtic.
In response, the Football Association’s Geoff Thompson urged players to behave themselves, while Leeds boss David O’Leary spoke of the need ‘to cut out the cheating’. Referee Graham Poll complained that ‘players are going down as if they have been hit by a 10-ton truck when there has been a slight contact’. Poll wants diving to be made a red-card offence – as if referees don’t already have enough excuses to reach for their pockets.
The Guardian’s David Lacey blames the upsurge in diving on a FIFA directive in the mid-1990s, which meant that a referee no longer had to be satisfied that a defender intended to commit a foul in order to award a penalty. The result, Lacey argues, has been ‘a shift in the art of deception from defenders to attackers’ (1).
While a reversion to the old intent rule would certainly reduce the scope for winning penalties through diving, referees would once again be faced with the thankless task of trying to judge intent.
You might be forgiven for having forgotten about the great diving furore altogether. This is understandable, because on 6 October 2001 the English showed the world that we too could dive like Jacques Cousteau. Teddy Sheringham’s exaggerated collapse under an innocuous challenge from Greek defender Costas Kostantinidis earned England a last-minute free kick and, well, the rest is history. (Perhaps Bell and Spurling should add a new verse to their song ‘Sven, Sven, Sven’: ‘Teddy, Teddy, Teddy, Teddy Sher-ing-ham. He dives like a foreigner, but wears the shirt of In-ger-land.’)
For years we kidded ourselves that diving was a nasty continental habit, alien to the traditional British values of fair play. We bristled with righteous indignation after Diego Maradona’s Hand of God in the 1986 World Cup. But, after 6 October, we will never have the moral authority to complain about cheating again. When BBC commentator John Motson uttered the immortal words: ‘Oh.…Konstantinidis I think has got a case there, but who’s arguing if you’re English?’, so the last vestiges of the Corinthian ethos were extinguished.
Of course, the English did not suddenly learn to dive on 6 October. English players have been doing it for years. In 1998, Michael Owen clearly dived to earn England a penalty against Argentina. In his autobiography, Jaap Stam alleges that Alex Ferguson instructed his players to dive in European games.
But if Motty speaks for the nation when he asks ‘who’s arguing?’, then the Sheringham topple may mark a turning point in our attitude to diving. Instead of crying ‘cheat’, perhaps we will now see this as an acceptable form of gamesmanship – like the sly shirt-tugging and pushing, or the ‘verbals’ that go on behind the referee’s back.
We may never applaud a player who rolls around feigning injury. But it is about time that we stopped aping the values of the patrician founders of the game. Winning, after all, is more important than taking part.
(1) All fall down in the quest for the perfect penalty, Guardian, 22 September 2001
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