Gamesmanship alive and well
After a breakneck group phase, the World Cup has slowed down a touch -- not just in terms of the number of games but also its overall vibrancy. One consequence is that, with fewer on-pitch heroics to mull over, the less savoury side of the tournament comes under closer scrutiny, and there have been plenty of instances of gamesmanship to keep tongues wagging over the last couple of weeks. Part of the game or overstepping the mark? Let's weigh up the evidence.
Who would have wanted to be Bryan Ruiz? As the Costa Rica attacker made the 40-yard walk from centre circle to penalty spot in Salvador, the figure waiting to greet him loomed larger. There was Netherlands keeper Tim Krul, standing on the spot, waiting for a quick chat before the pair's exchange could be crystallised in one tentative kick of a ball and one stretch of a long, firm arm. Krul pointed at Ruiz, even stuck out his right hand as if to hammer his certainty home, and perhaps the job was half done before Ruiz had even begun his run-up.
Krul knew his time on the pitch would be short and fully intended to make the most of it. His swagger and his loud, almost certainly doubt-implanting proclamations before each spot kick have drawn criticism -- to what extent should it be illegal to get into an opponent's ear? Jorge Luis Pinto was unimpressed on the sidelines, with the Costa Rica manager waving an arm as Krul sized up Giancarlo Gonzalez's (successful, just) penalty, but the Newcastle player's actions were little more than a distilled sample of what goes on throughout an entire football match.
Psychology, verbally expressed or not, has always been a way of obtaining the upper hand, and sometimes, with Zinedine Zidane's head butt of Marco Materazzi in 2006 an extreme example, its consequences go even further than intended. Krul's posturing -- which, it must be noted, was mirrored to an extent by opposite number Keylor Navas -- was not exactly pretty and seems worse for the fact that it helped outdo a Costa Rica side that won hearts and minds. But if we are to pull him up for this, you wonder what microphones would pick up when players go head to head during other key moments in games.
Playing for time
"It can take them 30 seconds to take a throw-in and the referee does nothing about it." Marc Wilmots' grapes were, in truth, a little sour after Argentina beat his Belgium side in a more comfortable fashion than the 1-0 scoreline suggested, but he had a point here. The ball was in play for 53 of the 97 minutes in Brasilia, a figure that was not too far short of the tournament average.
It's far from the most damning statistic of its kind: of 96 minutes' engagement between Brazil and Colombia, the ball was active for a hardly believable 39; when the Colombians met Uruguay in the second round, the figure was 49 minutes from 94; when Brazil and Chile faced each other for 128 minutes in Belo Horizonte, they only used the ball for 70 of them. Confronted with figures like these, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the nigglier, rotationally fouling sides are seeing the odds stacked in their favour.
There is a mitigating factor to partly explain the mean of 56.8 minutes: it's hot out there, and it is consequently difficult to demand that matches move at 100 miles an hour. But when nearly -- and sometimes over -- half a game's allotted time is spent standing around and doing nothing, something feels wrong. There is a cultural factor at play to some extent, with the pace of the play in Latin American football tending to differ from that in Europe, but stronger refereeing would surely have given sides such as Belgium and Colombia a better chance of getting back into their games -- and provided the spectacles we'd hoped for.
Going over too easily
Arjen Robben has been one of the best players to watch at this tournament, but you fear that his legacy may be felt most strongly in the ongoing debate about diving. Looking at it one way, his honesty after Netherlands' win over Mexico -- when he admitted to a "stupid action" in the first half, falling when a defender had in fact pulled out of a challenge -- underlined that players who operate at his pace can consider the smallest hindrance to their momentum to be worthy of going down. That is understandable to an extent; the faster you're going, the more shuddering the stop, and it should really be no surprise that quicker footballers feel slight contact more acutely. It is one of the reasons the penalty he earned against Mexico was correctly given but, at the same time, it is not enough to excuse careless tumbles completely.
Even if you accept that Robben's falls are an inevitable by-product of his style -- in the same way that, on a wider scale, good teams tend to win more penalties simply because they have better, sharper players and spend more time in and around the opposition's box -- he should still have been awarded a yellow card for that dive against Mexico. But his was not the only, or the worst, such example. Marcelo's piece of play-acting late on in Brazil's game with Mexico was egregious and all the more remarkable for its audacity in the light of Fred-gate from the opening game, when the striker won a controversial and largely decisive penalty against Croatia. Marcelo's cries were unheeded but he was not booked, either, and thus the tone was further set for a tournament that probably needed its referees to draw firmer lines in the sand early on.
But the mere fact that not one player has been booked for diving at this World Cup speaks for itself.
A favoured tactic, this -- although the fact that the tournament began with a decision as debatable as Brazil's penalty award probably made teams twitchier.
Chile planned their approach with characteristic alacrity ahead of their meeting with the Selecao, Alexis Sanchez offering, "I'm very happy to be playing against Brazil. But what worries me the most is the refereeing." He needn't have worried too much, as Howard Webb penalised the Brazilians 28 times, denying them what was viewed in Brazil as a good goal when Hulk was deemed to have handballed.
"I would like to ask FIFA and the referees to watch Robben closely," Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto said before Saturday's quarterfinal. "Maybe he would have to leave the field because he gets two yellow cards for diving."
Referee Ravshan Irmatov doubtless appreciated the thought, but in the event Robben, perhaps mindful of the furore that had followed his post-Mexico admission, gave him little reason to act. Evidence suggests that pre-empting referees' decisions may even turn things the other way: after the chorus of disapproval that followed Fred's tumble against Croatia, Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir took a noticeably stern line whenever a Brazilian went down softly in their next match against Mexico, although he should have booked Marcelo for that dive.