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Mar 20, 2014

Defending the fall guys

The debate over diving was re-ignited this week in the excellent Raphael Honigstein ESPN piece and, of course, it is hard to defend those who do it -- personally it took a long time to get over the fact Arjen Robben got Pepe Reina sent off in their Chelsea-Liverpool days -- but I would say if there exists a list of football priorities within UEFA or FIFA’s hierarchy then "simulation" ought not to be too high on it.

This debate flared up again at Old Trafford during Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Manchester United, when the laws of probability were scorched by the award of three penalties for the visiting side. It was the final spot kick that got everyone upset thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s rather theatrical fall.

I highly doubt he was aware of the red card that would follow for Nemanja Vidic, more likely he remembered his right foot has been utterly useless of late and Steven Gerrard’s trusty penalty technique would make it 3-0 anyway (at least he was half right). I also doubt he was too bothered, given Vidic only had himself to blame that he was on such a tightrope after a nasty lunge on Luis Suarez triggered his first yellow card.

Suarez himself brought this whole moral minefield into view by actually staying on his feet for a change. He got clipped (twice) in the first half but wasn’t awarded a penalty. TV experts even said “he could have gone down and got a penalty there” in a mystified and even critical tone. Suarez would be forgiven for thinking he’d somehow dropped into Alice’s Wonderland by mistake.

Honigstein touched on this via a quote from Peter Crouch, and if referees could do their jobs properly maybe strikers wouldn’t have to act so much by “colouring in” the crime. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the player is already looking at you for a penalty with those sad, Puss-In-Boots eyes before he’s even hit the floor, it’s probably simulation.

Liverpool fans may feel a trifle paranoid that their man was singled out for express criticism, given the usual reluctance to label any British player a cheat. I’ve lost count of the times commentators yowl for penalties and yellow cards when a homegrown footballer falls to the ground, only to remain mute as the video replay showed a clear dive. The less said about Gareth “He moves so fast, y’know, it’d only take a breath of wind to knock him over” Bale the better.

What has irritated me for many years is the delusion that diving exists in and of itself. It wasn’t there and then boom, it was, supposedly imported from foreign shores. Football evolves, and when strikers were taking so much abuse from defenders given nicknames like "Chopper" they had to devise a means in which to survive and prosper.

The world’s greatest ever footballer, Diego Maradona, is the classic example. Hated on these shores for the Hand of God goal, he was flattened continuously in his previous World Cup and was sent off for his one reaction. At Barcelona he was nearly separated from his foot by someone actually nicknamed “The Butcher of Bilbao,” Andoni Goikoetxea, who put the boot that did the deed in a glass case. No wonder Maradona learned quickly to fight fire with fire.

Today’s defenders are less violent for sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few other tricks up their sleeve. They’ll put the striker on the deck, hover over him shouting and then ask the referee to book the striker for diving. No TV pundit has ever called anyone on this.

Immediately after Vidic trudged off the pitch last Sunday, Sturridge was clearly clipped by Michael Carrick, who raced off to referee Mark Clattenburg to demand punishment for the Liverpool man. Isn’t this just as bad? In fact, isn’t it worse? Since the player has committed a foul and then tried to get an innocent party a card which (we are told) is also punishable?

Strikers have their tricks, too. About two months ago, the BBC held a Twitter vote to ask its viewers if Suarez had dived for a penalty against Aston Villa. This was most odd, as BBC pundits Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer had already claimed it was a legitimate award. There is a Striker’s Union, of course, sympathetic to all the wiles necessary to get the ball into the back of the net.

I first saw the “push and drop” technique perfected by John Barnes in his first season with Liverpool, which was 27 years ago. His manager at the time, Kenny Dalglish, devised several ploys like the odd theatrical tumble and an outlandishly protruding backside to discourage overly physical defenders in his own glittering playing career, but more than 30 years later, the British still think they are a cut above that sort of thing.

Watching the match at Old Trafford, I naively assumed the biggest post-match outcry would be for the dangerous tackles committed by Vidic and Rafael. Fortunately the Liverpool players under attack both got up and carried on, even scoring the all-important goals, but both challenges received the same “punishment” as time-wasting or back-chat to the officials.

In an ideal world diving would disappear, but until we live in one it comes lower on the list of football problems to solve. Dangerous play and the last remaining defender's perk, that dusty antiquity known as the offside law, would come higher on mine. But that’s for another article.