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Diving so hard to swallow

I vividly remember the night it became crystal clear to me that we football commentators just can't win.

The year was 1987 and I was positioned on the chilly gantry above the South Stand at Pittodrie Stadium in my home city of Aberdeen, describing an incident-packed match against Celtic for BBC Scotland listeners.

John Greig, the former Rangers captain and manager provided his usual no-nonsense analysis, while our colleague Roddy Forsyth was sitting in the next chair supplying Radio 2 with succinct updates.

All three of us wore our working spectacles that evening and received suspicious glowers at regular intervals from the Red Army. Aberdeen supporters have long held a grudge against a mainstream Scottish media they perceive to be heavily biased in favour of the big Glasgow clubs, Rangers and Celtic.

I can say this without any fear of contradiction because my formative years were spent sharing the paranoia in that same South Stand supporting a certain team in red and white.

When the Dons came from a goal down to draw level in the second half that night, hundreds of scowling Aberdonian faces immediately poured scorn on the most obvious target, the commentary box. The verbal suggestion was made that we four-eyed west coast 'so-and-sos' should go away back to our slums posthaste.

Until moving from the North East of Scotland to the central belt in the mid-eighties, I too believed that all the leading Scottish journalists and commentators detested Aberdeen and were in fact fans of Rangers AND Celtic.

Of course to any rational onlooker, this possibility is even less remote than the Londoner who supports both Arsenal and Chelsea and the resident of Oporto who follows not only FC Porto but also their city rivals Boavista. It's easy to mix up bias and emphasis.

That brings us nicely to the elegant city on the banks of the River Douro. FC Porto, currently preparing for their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg against Deportivo, provide us with an intriguing case study when it comes to the issue of media partiality.

In short, Porto have become the bogeymen of European football as far as many British journalists are concerned. Due to the pervasive influence of the internet, a fair few fans have got in on the act too.

There's no long-standing history to this feud. It fact it began less than twelve months ago at the UEFA Cup Final in Seville with Porto overcoming Celtic 3-2 after extra time. The scoreline was only part of the story however. Accusations that the Portuguese team had dived and conned their way to victory were prevalent in all sectors of the Scottish, English and Irish media.

Attention was thus directed away from the plain fact that on footballing pedigree, Porto had been the superior side on the night. Incisive and technically superior to their Scottish opponents, Jose Mourinho's team deserved their first piece of European silverware for sixteen years.

To many journalists though, more newsworthy was the pathetic sight near the end of extra time of goalkeeper Vitor Baia squirming on the ground as though sliced in half, after the merest tap on his shin. This unseemly charade lasted nearly four minutes and completely flummoxed Slovak referee Lubos Michel. The incident seemed to confirm our prejudices.

We knew full well that these same talking points would come to the fore when Manchester United and Porto were drawn together in the first knockout round of this season's Champions League and so it proved.

Is there a bias in the British media against a philosophy of play that sees nothing wrong with seeking to gain an advantage by pulling the wool over the referee's eyes? Undoubtedly.

Porto had unveiled a flashy, young Brazilian striker whose shooting prowess was surpassed only by his ability to tumble to the ground. These antics enraged Sir Alex Ferguson who after the first leg seemed to give his opposite number the dreaded 'hairdryer' treatment. Gary Neville later accused the Porto players of whinging like little girls.

At this point, the war of words grew took on wider proportions. Mourinho stoked the fire a few days later by lashing out at Celtic's 'strong-arm' tactics in their UEFA Cup meeting with Barcelona. Martin O'Neill had contributed to this verbal jamboree with supportive comments about United and the suggestion that UEFA might want to further investigate Porto's dramatic tendencies. All this was grist to the mill of us in the media but these were dodgy times for those trying to improve British-Portuguese football relations.

When United came up short in their quest to eliminate the UEFA Cup holders, I was quick to say in this column that the better team had gone through over the two matches. Nevertheless, I questioned then why a team blessed with the sublime talents of Deco, Maniche and Alenitchev need rely on 'simulation' as the official description goes.

One view of football (often the British view) makes a virtue of the 'getting stuck in' approach to the game while abhorring divers and those who feign injury. Others see the latter qualities as an integral, indeed clever part of football and far more palatable than scything into an opponent with a crunching tackle.

Speaking personally, it doesn't matter to me who's doing the belly-flopping. It could be Pippo Inzaghi, Francesco Totti or Stilian Petrov. I'm predisposed to find such actions loathsome and cowardly. Where is the fair play?

I know from my own mailbox that Porto supporters feel virtually everyone in the British media wishes their team ill. One or two claimed to have detected bias in this commentator's voice - against their team - in the return leg of the Manchester United game.

Let me assure you though that I have nothing at all against FC Porto. I applauded you when Jaime Pacheco and Fernando Gomes played Aberdeen off the park in the 1984 Cup Winners Cup semi-final and was delighted for you three years later when Rabah Madjer inspired you to European Cup glory. You have a team that could easily go all the way in Europe's premier club competition this year.

On the other hand, is there a general bias in the British media against a philosophy of play that sees nothing wrong with seeking to gain an advantage by pulling the wool over the referee's eyes? Undoubtedly.

Similarly, do reporters in other countries find physical play that constantly borders on the illegal just as repugnant? Definitely.

I'm hoping we won't have to discuss matters that have to do with swallow diving in this space next week. It's time for all of us to end this silly squabble.


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