Diving: let’s get real about simulation

Maybe players do ‘go to ground too easily’, but football would be much duller without such pantomime villains.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Football, we are frequently told, has much to learn from other sports about fair play and respect for officials. Whenever a less illustrious sport briefly enjoys the public limelight – as we recently saw with the Olympics – it isn’t long before overpaid, bling-adorned, foul-mouthed footballers are given a good kicking. Football is a sport which has, apparently, lost its moral compass. This week’s big talking point – the growth of diving in the English game – reinforced the narrative of a corroded sporting ethos. But do we really need tough action to stamp out diving? Or should we just accept that diving is here to stay and perhaps even learn to embrace the dark art of playacting.

The two players at the centre of the latest diving controversy are Totthenham’s Gareth Bale and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. TV replays showed that both Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez were guilty of frankly ridiculous dives. Neither player was cautioned. Nor, under current FA rules, can they be retrospectively punished.

Cue the predictable breastbeating about how Something Must Be Done to stop the scourge of ‘simulation’. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce described diving as a ‘cancer within the game’ and called for retrospective trial-by-video. ‘It can be dealt with retrospectively by disciplinary committees, and it is done so in some associations, and I believe that is the correct thing to do’, said Boyce. Stoke manager Tony Pulis also called for Suarez to be banned. ‘Retrospective decisions are made on a Monday and Luis Suárez should be punished’, said Pulis. ‘Give him three games and he will stop falling over. The one in the penalty box was an embarrassment and how he wasn’t booked I don’t know.’

There is a strong whiff of chauvinism about the demonisation of players like Luis Suarez. The airbrushed portrayal of the Uruguayan, in the saccharine documentary Being Liverpool, as an ordinary mild-mannered Monopoly-playing bloke will do little to stop opposition fans chanting: ‘He cheats, he dives, he hates the Jackson Five.’ Playacting is frowned upon in this country because, well, it offends our peculiarly British sense of fair play. Conning the referee by diving or feigning injury is regarded as a nasty foreign import. A bone-crunching reducer ‘early doors’ to let an opponent ‘know you’re there’ is the kind of robust, manly gamesmanship we prefer.

Now, I’ll be the first to scream ‘get up you tart’ when an opposition player flops to the ground. No one likes to be on the receiving end of a con-artist. But diving is hardly a new phenomenon. We’ve seen footballers ‘going to ground too easily’ – a euphemism for diving – for many years. Manchester City legend Francis Lee was belly-flopping theatrically long before today’s players were even in nappies. This week even squeaky clean Michael Owen admitted to going down deliberately to win a penalty against Argentina in 1998. ‘I was running flat out, got a nudge, went down. Could I have stayed up? Yeah, probably’, admitted the former England striker. Sir Alex Ferguson supposedly instructed his players to go down when touched when Manchester United were still learning the ropes in Europe. As Gareth Bale illustrated on Sunday, Britain is now producing its own homegrown divers. So, isn’t it time we abandoned our King Canute-style denial and learnt to live with diving?

In recent years, there has been a toughening of sanctions against simulation. A player who dives can now be punished with a yellow card. But do we really need even stronger punishment and retrospective bans? Arguably, diving is self-defeating. Players who gain a reputation for diving are not only slated by the boo boys, they also find that legitimate penalty claims are turned down. Liverpool manager Brendan Rogers has complained that perfectly good penalty shouts are now going against the Uruguayan. ‘The likes of Suarez have had a couple of good penalty appeals, he hasn’t dived they have been legitimate, and he’s actually got booked’, complained Rogers.

So, not only are tougher sanctions unnecessary, I’m beginning to wonder whether we should quit booing divers and start admiring their technique. I never really appreciated the art of diving until I saw my first Spanish football match – Atletico Madrid versus Real Mallorca in the 1991 Copa del Rey final. I was struck by the theatrical way in which players threw themselves to the turf and rolled around in apparent agony. And then the penny dropped. This wasn’t just sport, it was theatre. In the same way that the gestures and mannerism of stage actors or opera singers are exaggerated, footballers exaggerate their dives so that everyone knows they’ve been fouled. The Santiago Bernebau is a huge, steeply banked stadium and, from where we were standing, up in the gods, the players seemed like tiny Subbuteo figures. The rolling around wasn’t just for the benefit of the officials; they were hamming it up for the crowd.

Our British distaste for diving is a hangover from the Victorian notion that football is an instrument of moral improvement. Cheating in sport is not just seen as contravening the rules of a game; it is regarded as immoral. Isn’t it time we jettisoned this outdated aristocratic conceit that sport is a civilising force and recognised that it is simply entertainment? Just as you can’t have good drama without heroes and villains, so we shouldn’t cleanse football of its imperfections. Yes, we need the beauty of Messi but without pantomime villains like Luis Suarez, the drama of football would be diminished.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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