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Oct 17, 2007

The beautiful game takes a dive

'Dida's dive,' whispered one of my U.S. co-workers, 'is going to hurt soccer so much in this country.'

My colleague is one of those rare male Americans who lives and breathes football. He captains a company team and spends much of his free time rounding up players for outdoor and indoor leagues.

His view is that Dida's comical collapse after being tapped on the shoulder by the Celtic fan celebrating a late Champions League goal against AC Milan reinforces the stereotype that football is overflowing with fakers.

While Dida made huge, unwanted headlines across Europe and in his native Brazil, it is outside the game's traditional strongholds in places like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa where the goalkeeper's disgraceful antics does the most damage.

The U.S. is in the midst of a brutal season of NFL gridiron football in which combatants - despite helmets and body padding - regularly suffer all kinds of unmentionable injuries.

Sports fans in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa recently finished watching widespread TV coverage of the Rugby World Cup from France where teams smashed into each other with alarming ferocity. But players would almost always go out of their way to cover up any injury so not to give the opposition - players or crowds - any sense of gaining the upper hand.

It is indeed hard to imagine South Africa's World Cup winning captain John Smit rolling on the ground in mock agony if an England supporter had lightly clipped him after invading the Stade De France in the midst of a successful Jonny Wilkinson penalty goal.

In its third season, Australia's A-League is slowly starting to make inroads into the dominance of Australian Rules Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. But Dida's Oscar-worthy performance - widely-aired on the national news bulletins - gave the soccer-haters some useful ammunition.

Even Australia's football writers cringed - and universally condemned the comical 'keeper.

Under the headline, 'Official: The Beautiful Game is Dead', the Sun-Herald's Matthew Hall wrote a scathing blog. 'Thanks a lot, Dida. The last remnant of what sentimental fools call Jogo Bonito was carried off at Celtic Park with the Milan goalkeeper last week.'

Of course, the outrage doesn't mean that football theatrics are limited to technically-gifted South Americans and Europeans.

The opening round of the new A-League season had its own diving controversy when returning former Socceroo captain Craig Moore - making his debut for Queensland Roar - accused Adelaide United youngster Nathan Burns. Moore was red-carded after his challenge left the elusive Burns in a crumpled heap but the teenager later said he had the marks to prove that he wasn't simulating.

Diving, of course, isn't limited to professional football. It raises the same ethical questions at every level of the sport, in every country.

A few years ago, I played as a right fullback in a recreational league in a big U.S. city. Most of my teammates were exactly like me - blue-collar players with good intentions but limited skill who'd struggle to unlock a school suitcase, let alone a well-organised defence. Even our strikers were duffers who would habitually drift offside or take wild air-swings at the ball from ridiculous positions.

But we did have two European imports - a Dutchman and a Belgian - who shone above the rest. Unfortunately they were only midfielders which meant our best chance of scoring came from set-pieces - or when one of them made a long run into the penalty area and fell over like a nine-pin as a defender came near them.

Under those circumstances, diving didn't seem so bad - in fact, we applauded it because many of our goals resulted from debatable penalty kicks.

But what Dida did somehow seems a lot worse, and will probably become the single, defining incident of his entire football career. Not even the most massive of Milan bank balances will be able to make up for a reputation that's been irrevocably tarnished.


Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a co-host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter


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