Is that good cheating or bad cheating?
British football fans have long had a schizophrenic attitude to gamesmanship.
Ashley Young is a playacting, diving cheat. I was effing and blinding at his theatrical antics during Saturday’s match between Young’s Manchester United and Crystal Palace. I was raging at the heavens. And the referee. And anyone who’d care to listen. Like most Palace fans, I felt robbed and cheated. If I’d been at Old Trafford, I’d have joined in the chants of ‘wanker, wanker, wanker’, which were directed at Young as he trotted sheepishly off the pitch. He deserves to be issued with a Croydon fatwa. But I don’t agree with Palace co-chairman Steve Parish who says that diving should be a red-card offence.
I guess that the only positive to draw from the whole sorry episode is that the British are no longer living in the dark ages when it comes to the art of ‘simulation’. Sure, we’re not very good at some of football’s technical stuff. Keeping the ball is still an alien concept to us. But we can at least boast some world-class homegrown divers. Gareth Bale has a sweet left foot, but he also has a not-so-sweet penchant for a swallow dive. And now Ashley Young is emerging as the ‘Hertfordshire Suárez’. British players don’t even figure in the shortlist for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or – Golden Ball – but it’s a Golden Age for British cheats.
I jest, of course. But simulation is no laughing matter in this country. It’s not the British way. Young’s playacting has been greeted with howls of condemnation. Irate radio phone-in show callers fumed that diving was getting out of hand, that diving was ruining the beautiful game and that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. Steve Parish called for retrospective punishment. ‘If preventing a goal-scoring opportunity is a straight red then trying to create one by cheating should be a straight red also’, said the Palace co-chairman. David Moyes concured. ‘I’ve said for many years we should have retrospective video for diving’, he said. The United manager says that he’ll be having a word with Ashley Young. If he does succeed in getting his winger to cut out the diving, it raises the question: why do we need tougher sanctions? There’s already a strong culture of self-policing which means that overt playacting is met with disapproval by teammates and coaches. And even if peer pressure doesn’t work, a player who acquires a reputation as a diver usually finds that referees will start to turn down legitimate penalty claims.
It’s worth unpicking British attitudes to diving. A diver is stigmatised in a way that a hard man who clatters an opponent isn’t. ‘It’s a man’s game’, is the usual refrain. The implication is that a real man is expected to take the knocks and not let the opposition know he is in pain. Diving and feigning injury, on the other hand, do not conform to the traditional norms of British masculinity. It is regarded as unmanly to dive or feign injury. ‘Get up you tart’, we shout at players who we believe are overacting.
Diving is seen as a nasty foreign disease, something that unscrupulous overseas players have imported – the footballing equivalent of rabies. Of course, it’s a myth that British footballers have always been as pure as the driven snow. Ever since the laws of football were written in 1863, players have been attempting to bend or break the rules in order to gain a competitive advantage. Diving might be less acceptable in Britain but there are plenty of homegrown varieties of gamesmanship. These usually take the form of verbals or off-the-ball incidents such as sly kicks and stray elbows. We regard that famous photo of Vinnie Jones grabbing Gazza’s knackers as amusing but not morally reprehensible. Kicking or clattering an opponent early in a game – what Ron Atkinson called ‘the reducer’ – is a traditional British method of psyching out the opposition. Some might call it thuggery, but we use the euphemism ‘letting your opponent know you’re there’. Timewasting tactics – or ‘running down the clock’ as we prefer to call it – have long been widespread, too. All these acts of petty gamesmanship are considered ‘fair game’ in British football.
And, despite the tut-tutting over diving, it would be churlish to believe that British players are novices at the simulation game. Francis Lee was throwing himself to the ground way back in the 1970s. In one notorious incident in 1975, he and Norman Hunter were sent off for exchanging punches, after the Leeds defender had accused Lee of diving to win a penalty. Another notorious act of simulation was Michael Owen’s dive to win a penalty for England against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. ‘I was running flat out, got a nudge, went down’, said Owen. ‘Could I have stayed up? Yes, probably.’
I don’t remember too many England supporters calling Owen a cheat at the time. In fact, we often draw the distinction between going to ground when there is contact – which is legitimate – and out-and-out diving which is classed as cheating. It reminds me of the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David asks: ‘Isn’t there a good Hodgkin’s and a bad Hodgkin’s?’ Similarly, we evidently believe that there’s good diving and bad diving. If there’s contact, then a player is supposedly ‘entitled to go down’. By contrast, a wildly exaggerated belly flop is regarded as a violation of football’s sacred ethos of fair play.
Diving is an infringement of the rules of football. It is an attempt to gain an unfair advantage. But the national inquest that follows every high-profile incident of diving is absurdly disproportionate. No one got injured. No crime was committed and yet we throw our arms up in horror as though this was the start of a slippery slope to barbarism. The British still haven’t shaken off the old Victorian notion that sport is an instrument of moral instruction. The thing is that cheating at sport is not an immoral act. It’s just rule-breaking. Frankly, if the social fabric really can’t withstand a petty act of sporting gamesmanship then we really are buggered.
We say we hate diving, but we’d miss it if it ever disappeared. Whisper it, but a good simulation controversy adds to the drama of football. Sometimes it’s funny – Steven Taylor’s going-down-as-though-shot-routine against Villa in 2005 was a work of comic genius – but more often it stokes up the crowd’s anger. Either way, football would be a much duller place without pantomime villains like Luis Suárez or Ashley Young at whom to yell abuse.
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