Foul play theatrics: Diving is a dark art & a stain on the beautiful game

Sergio Busquets recently claimed that simulation is smart, but football players should never be commended for what is essentially cheating

By Brendon Netto

A winger storms past his full-back, bursts into the penalty box and with only the sluggish centre-back between him and the goalkeeper, takes a tumble after the slightest contact with the defender, or perhaps none at all. The referee points to the spot and to the centre-back’s despair, brandishes a red card. The penalty is converted and what was once a pulsating, even contest is thrown completely off balance, thereby ruining the spectacle. Frustrating, isn’t it?

Admittedly, that’s an extreme scenario of how diving can have a huge impact on a game. Going down easily in the middle of the park when crowded out is hardly a cardinal sin, or one that’s quite as significant, yet, it is still a form of diving. Sometimes, the act is even acceptable and perhaps appreciated when a player wins soft free-kicks in an effort to run down the clock at the tail end of a crucial encounter. Is his morality attacked? Not necessarily. In fact, he may even be commended for his ‘professionalism’.

So is simulation a dark art that should be ruthlessly stamped out of the game by means of lengthy suspensions? Is it merely one of the features of football and should it be deemed “smart” according to Sergio Busquets’ recent remarks when questioned about play-acting? It’s certainly a grey area, as grey and as controversial as they come in football.

“Play-acting? It’s not play-acting, it’s being smart… It’s all too easy to label people”

Sergio Busquets

It would be a lot simpler to be a beacon of unwavering morality and say, “No Sergio, it’s not smart at all,” but the issue is far more complex. The ugly truth is that to a certain extent he’s quite right, even though using the word ‘smart’ may be repugnantly glorifying the deed.

Make no mistake, diving, play-acting, simulation or whatever you want to call it is illegal and wrong but the question is, to what extent? People reminisce about the ‘old days’ when players were ‘real men’ and would battle on, rather than ever contemplate going over.

The simulation in today’s game is said to give the attackers an unfair advantage, but you’d have to point out that players being able to smash into fleet-footed forwards 30 years ago without receiving so much as a yellow card could have also been regarded as an unfair advantage in favour of defenders.

Simulation may be one of the darker aspects of the game’s evolution over time but was the accepted tactic all those years ago of literally kicking a player out of the game any less unethical? Bobby Charlton has spoken of the bucket of ice that would be waiting in the dressing room for George Best to soak his battered and bruised shins into at half-time and full-time.    

In that respect, you can’t crucify players for maybe being a bit sensible and riding challenges rather than staying on their feet and enduring the full impact of a tackle. In fact, in some cases, going down in anticipation of a tackle could well save a player’s career. There’s a reason why Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are able to play 50 games a season and their desire to stay on their feet despite getting clattered on a regular basis isn’t it.

You also have to be careful not to single out attacking players when discussing simulation because defenders and goalkeepers do it too. How often have we seen goalkeepers going to ground when they realise that they can’t quite reach a delivery and decide to win a free-kick instead? As robust and tough as defenders may be, they aren’t innocent in it all either.

For example, if a defender is pegged into a corner with no support and has a hassling forward on his back like Carlos Tevez or Luis Suarez, what does he do? He doesn’t want to give away a corner and he’d rather not concede possession by kicking it out for the throw-in. So, he goes down following a bit of contact from the forward and more often than not, he earns his side a free-kick, keeps possession and relieves the pressure.

Is that simulation? Most certainly but it’s not particularly condemned. On the touch-line, the manager of the defending team is instead pleased with the rational actions of his defender, while the other is irate that his forward was naive enough to get drawn into a foul when his opponent had nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, diving in search of a penalty in the heat of the moment can make one look quite foolish but it doesn’t always warrant the player being labelled a cheat. The fact is that even the most honest and respected players have done it too. Suarez and Ashley Young may be regarded as stereotypical divers, but then there are the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and even Messi who have succumbed under the pressure of getting that all important goal.

“When Glenn Hoddle was England manager, he instructed us to go down in the area”

Steve McManaman

At the highest level, when so much rides on every game, diving for a penalty is understandable. It’s not right, not at all, but it’s not unforgivable either. The fact is that the reward of a penalty far outweighs the risk of a yellow card if caught. On the downside, regardless of whether you get the decision or not, you have cameras all over the ground covering your fall from every angle possible and when it’s blatantly clear that you’ve dived, you gain a reputation as well.

When a player is merely grazed across the chest and instead collapses in agony with his face in his hands, writhing across the turf as if in unbearable pain, that’s a plain embarrassment and one that Busquets has been all too often associated with.

Nothing makes people more determined than when they’ve been wronged. The opposition pulls together in adversity. In the following away games, crowds will get on the same player’s back whenever he takes a tumble, whether legitimate or not. It gives the whole stadium a lift and puts a lot of pressure on the targeted player’s team.

Referees are human too and so as much as they may deny it, a player’s reputation does seem to influence their decision making. That’s possibly the reason why Suarez, who attracted a lot of attention for diving last season, was denied stone-wall penalties later on when he was indeed fouled.

Moreover, repeated simulation does the club’s image no favours at all. Busquets blatantly conned the referee in a Champions League clash against Inter in 2010, when he went to ground following a slight tussle with Thiago Motta and feigned an injury. Replays showed the Spaniard peeking through his hands while rolling on the floor as the referee sent Motta off.

“If people want to say I’m diving then they can, but I’m trying to get out of the way”

Gareth Bale

That gave his side a massive tactical advantage, even though they were ultimately unsuccessful, but it also hurt the club as it took their reputation as divers even further.

For all the phenomenal football Barcelona have played in recent years and all the success they’ve earned through it, opposing fans will always point to their theatrics and it will remain a blemish on what has been a truly dominant era for the club. Hence, in the long run, simulation can be detrimental to the player and club and certainly shouldn’t be deemed smart.

Retroactive punishment has been discussed at length but it would be very difficult to carry out with regard to the severity of each offence. There’s bound to be inconsistencies on that front as well and controversy would soon follow suit. Only an idealist would dare to believe that simulation can be completely stamped out of football.

Where do you draw the line? If you punish Busquets for rolling around on the floor, then you must punish Bale for simply getting out of the way in anticipation of a challenge as well. We may have reached a point where this sort of thing is just accepted as part of the game.

However, let’s not go around lauding the theatrics of players attempting to con referees. Let’s not go around labelling their actions as smart. We may have to grudgingly accept simulation as an undignified aspect of this great game, but let’s not embrace the act as if it’s part of the required skillset to play it.

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