On the issue of diving and playacting: defending the condemned

Nice piece on the BBC too here. Different angle, but the topic is in the spotlight.

The concept of fair play has definitely altered in recent years and incidents of diving and playacting have prompted outrage amongst critics and fans alike. It’s been argued in England that foreigners have been the catalysts for the growth of this aspect of the game and that the average British player has been forced to ditch sportsmanship so as not be at a disadvantage to the “cheaters”.

First, let’s take a look back at how football was a few decades ago and how players were “supposed” to behave as gentlemanly as possible. I’ve read Nobby Stiles’ book and he mentions how proud he used to be of crunching opposing players. A few days ago I flicked through Roy Keane’s new autobiography and there was talk of “letting players know that you’re there”. The great Maradona nearly had his career ruined in his early days at Barcelona just because a Bilbao player wanted to stamp his authority on the game. We’ve all seen the classic footage of Gazza having his testicles twisted by Vinnie Jones back in the early 90s. Basically, back then, it was all about being the “hard man”, taking dangerous tackles and off-the-ball incidents on the chin and getting on with it.

Maradona almost had his career ruined because of this "manly" tackle
Maradona almost had his career ruined because of this “manly” tackle

But football has changed. There’s a lot more protection for players and I totally agree with it. Let’s look at three different forms of what you may call gamesmanship and try analysing them.

  1. Drawing the foul.

I see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Winning a penalty has almost become an art form in the modern game. If a player feints this way and that or mesmerises a defender with step-overs in order to trick him into sticking out a leg, then what’s the problem with the attacker going over it? The holy Michael Owen did it an uncountable number of times. Just think Argentina 2002 and the subsequent Beckham penalty. Even as a defender I could do this. As a player approaches trying to tackle or pressure you, just get your body in the right position, lure them in closer, show them enough of the ball, and then nick it away and draw the foul so you don’t have to give away a corner or free kick. Works just the same in the opposite penalty area. Nothing wrong with deceiving your opponent.

Michael Owen tricks Mauricio Pochettino into fouling him
Michael Owen tricks Mauricio Pochettino into fouling him

Clearly, if the contact doesn’t come and the player goes down claiming a foul knowing he hasn’t be touched, then he’s being a little dishonest. There was a Ross Barkley one against West Ham a few weeks ago. And that brings me to the ridiculous in-fashion cliché of “it’s either a penalty or yellow card.” No it isn’t. There’s a difference between diving and trying to draw a foul. If it doesn’t come off, and the player doesn’t appeal for a foul, then why punish him? Just look at an incident in the last few minutes of Liverpool vs Basel midweek when Gerrard goes down after contact with the keeper in the box. He’s clearly looking for the penalty, and such situations crop up in football constantly. He’s already stretching towards the ball and on his way down, but he doesn’t get there. Keeper gets ball and man, crowd goes wild, Gerrard sheepishly glances over at the referee just in case he got lucky and that’s it. No penalty, no yellow card for Gerrard and play on. Looking for a penalty isn’t a crime.

  1. Going down over an opposing player

There’s often debate over whether players could have stayed on their feet following scything slide tackles, and those that do are lauded for being honest professionals. But what comes of that gallant decision not to go down? The ball trickles through to the keeper and the chance is gone. Football is a game in which seconds, even milliseconds, are of vast importance. Picture a player at total velocity, bombing towards the goal and one-on-one with the last man. Think Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale if you like. He gets to the ball before said defender and knocks it around him. However, the skidding beast, such is the force he’s coming at, clips the attacker and knocks him off balance. Equally, he might not have touched him yet, but his lumbering frame is just plain in the way. The man in possession of the ball has no choice but to slow down, hurdle the obstacle or take a different route to goal. The few seconds lost in doing in so could mean that the goalkeeper gets out to the ball before him, or that another defender is able to get back.

Cristinao Ronaldo hurdling defenders
Cristiano Ronaldo hurdling defenders

And the referee doesn’t care. The gentlemanly player who doesn’t go down in such circumstances never gets the free-kick, despite the defender getting nowhere the ball, causing obstruction, and, on occasion, colliding with the attacker. As a defender, I did this all the time, because I knew nothing would ever be given against me. I saw it as a “half-foul”, something the ref would never punish, because the opposing players weren’t being chopped to the ground. So, there’s a trailing leg clearly impeding your route to goal. Is it wrong not to take the invitation to go down? In my book, I see no problem with it. Yet in some people’s eyes, I’d be a cheat.

3. How to respond to violent conduct

I’ll start this with an anecdote. I was playing a school match against one of the rough teams in the region and there was a break in play after something of a heavy tackle. A few words were exchanged and one of their players took a full-on swing at one of ours and caught him with a glancing blow (luckily my teammate had managed to swerve out of the way a little). The referee was in the vicinity and I felt he’d seen the incident. Yet as our player didn’t make it obvious that been hit, the ref did nothing and didn’t show any cards. As if to say: “you’re OK, fit enough to carry on.” The aforementioned punch-thrower went on to score a last-minute goal knocking us out of the cup in the semi-final.

Markovic should have been more careful
Markovic should have been more careful

As far as I’m concerned, he shouldn’t have been on the pitch to do so. Which brings me to this idea of “showing the referee” that something has happened. FA video panels can always punish a player retrospectively for violent conduct, but what about how such an incident affects the game itself? Is it right that an opponent can physically assault you and get away with it? You sometimes have to make sure that the ref sees it. Is it wronger to go down clutching your face even if the punch/headbutt/elbow from the other player doesn’t warrant it? Not for me. I understand that two wrongs don’t make a right, but throwing a punch on a football field is far worse than holding your face so as to draw attention to the incident. Some would consider Markovic’s red card in mid-week a little over the top, but why did he feel the need to thrust out a hand towards the other player? The other player went down easily, of course, but in my opinion, the Serb’s crime will always be greater.

Basically, analysts need to get off alleged cheats’ backs and think about why they go down for free kicks and try to get other players sent off in the first place. The initial wrongdoing is always carried out by the fouler or aggressor, so why should the recipient be disadvantaged just so he can be lauded as an honest sportsman? Fine margins count. Chivalry doesn’t.

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