Football had a bad week last week.
In Scotland, football seemed to implode. This sorry saga will run and run and there will be few winners and many losers.
In England, regardless of the fact that Terry was found not guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, neither of the players came out of the debacle smelling of roses.
Few of us who love the game were surprised at the filthy language the two players showered upon each other. It is slightly disappointing that the “banter” doesn’t quite reach the exquisite levels of sledging in cricket.
However, the telling point was that many have said “it is part of the game” and that to stamp out bad language would be either pointless or, somehow, negative. (NB: Never mind that both Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba have both been disciplined for “using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures” in recent years*). Such language contravenes the laws of the game but referees rarely do anything to stop it.
There are numerous other things that fans and the golf-club of ex-pros which populate our TV studios believe are “part of the game” which actually contravene the laws of the game.
After the game between England and Germany at the 2010 World Cup, Manuel Neuer admitted he knew that the ball had crossed the line but realised that no one had spotted it. His exact words were “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”
He cheated. He knew the ball was over the line, he knew he had conceded a goal but he deliberately conned the referee. To most of us though he did the right thing. It isn’t his job, after all, to referee the game nor is it his job to help the referee. It is part of the game. Can you imagine if your goalkeeper admitted a ball had crossed the line when the referee hadn’t seen it?
Neuer’s example is an extreme of the kind of small-scale cheating we see frequently. In every game we watch we will see players claiming for a corner, goal-kick or throw-in when they know that their claim is illegitimate. This, again, is an attempt to con the referee, to gain an advantage over their opponent. This is so widespread it isn’t even commented upon.
Somewhere between claiming a corner and not admitting a goal has been scored is a player claiming for handball when they know it hit the other player’s body. Again, this is something that isn’t even commented on. This is probably the closest to diving – because a player who handles the ball may (a) give away a penalty (b) get sent off. (Another comparable misdemeanor is players campaigning for a player to be booked or sent off after they have fouled a team-mate)
In fact, there is some cheating that is positively encouraged! How often have you heard an ageing commentator chuckle knowingly and commend a player for “taking a booking” or “committing a clever foul” for the good of his team? All of these things are “part of the game”. Deliberately fouling a player seems very much like diving to me – it is deliberately (possibly physically) harming an opponent, deliberately breaking the laws of the game to gain an advantage.
But what of diving?
Diving, to the British audience, is different. Diving is something foreign to the British game – a footballing version of Japanese knotweed or Abu Qutada. Foreigners that are here but we’d rather they weren’t thank you very much.
Diving, apparently, is a pervasive and persistent wart on the face of the beautiful game. Why is diving so unacceptable? Why do people within the game strive for diving to be seen as “not part of the game” when they readily accept other cheating?
I categorise diving the way that most people consider the matters above. For four reasons:
Firstly, people are generally opposed to diving when the opposition players are at it. It is very easy for managers to mouth off moaning about the influence of foreigners, how diving is ruining the game but we all know this is huff and blow. There are plenty of things ruining the game (Replica shirts for Champions League games, disloyal players kissing the badge, the overuse of the term world class, Jamie “Top, top” Redknapp, Tony Cascarino etc.) but diving isn’t really one of them. We all know that English players dive. We know that Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Walcott and Carroll have all dived. We know that this isn’t diving to many pundits. Rather it is “going down easily” which always makes me think of a dream girlfriend.
Secondly, as above, diving is in the same category of any number of other aspects of the game that football pundits either do not care about, ignore or praise.
Either it is ok to cheat to create or stop a goalscoring opportunity or it is not. If diving is unacceptable, so is claiming a corner illegitimately. If diving is unacceptable, so is the “clever booking”
Thirdly, diving is not cut and dried. There are times when players get tackled and they go down because they genuinely believe the player who tackled them got the man (as we know, players can get the man and the ball). That doesn’t mean if they go down that they have cheated.
Diving is part of the game these days and we have to deal with it like we deal with other problems within the game. Trying to outlaw diving is like trying to outlaw fouls, or swearing, or that weasel word ”gamesmanship”. It is because, despite Englishmen becoming adept at diving, there is the whiff of the foreign about diving that means it can be demonised.
*The full list of bookable and sending off offences can be found in the FIFA Laws of the Game. Also of interest are ”The Rules of the Football Assocation” which clearly state in Section: E Conduct: 3 (1) A participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insults words or behaviour”.