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Offside, 6 April

Do we really need a campaign to stop footballers diving?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What should be done about diving in football? The consensus seems to be that diving should be stamped out through tough sanctions against proven fakers. But, at the risk of being branded an apologist for cheating, I don’t agree.

It’s not that I support diving – it’s just that there are far more important things in life to get worked up about than a few footballers rolling around in mock agony.

We all know that footballers dive. They’ve been falling over for years. But now it seems that every incident of ‘simulation’ – the official FIFA term for diving – is scrutinised ad nauseam on television, ranted over on football phone-ins and hotly debated on internet message boards. But now the perennial moaning about diving has mutated into a full-blown campaign to stamp out this malevolent practice.

The Times has launched a campaign against diving and has asked football clubs to display its anti-diving posters in dressing rooms. The English Football Association (FA) has also taken up the cudgels and proposed retrospective punishments for divers based on video evidence. Charlton manager Alan Curbishley supports retrospective red cards for divers. ‘If you can be punished afterwards, named and shamed if you like, then I think we will put an end to it’, said Curbishley. Likewise, Sir Alex Ferguson has suggested that players who blatantly dive should given straight red cards.

One of the reasons that I feel uncomfortable with the campaign against diving is that there’s a vein of chauvinism running through it. ‘We didn’t used to have any of this in our country until players from abroad came in’, said Sir Bobby Charlton recently, a sentiment that was echoed by Everton’s Alan Stubbs. ‘It is a foreign thing that has crept into our game lately’, said Stubbs. The recent high profile diving incidents have predominantly focused on overseas players such as Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben. The increase in theatrical tumbles is seen as a nasty foreign import alongside spitting and wearing gloves and alice bands. While I tend to agree that there’s no place in football for gloves and alice bands, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that diving is an exclusively foreign affliction.

Anyone old enough to remember Franny Lee will know that English footballers were diving long before the influx of foreign players in the 1990s. In the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final Manchester United’s Mark Hughes deliberately got a Montpellier player red-carded by falling down clutching his face even though there had been no contact. I don’t recall Fergie calling for divers to be red carded at the time. Indeed Jaap Stam claimed in his autobiography that Fergie had ordered his players to win penalties by diving in European games.

And then there is squeaky-clean Michael Owen who has won two crucial penalties for England in World Cup games by falling over after brushing shoulders with Argentine defenders. Owen wasn’t branded a cheat and the British press didn’t get all sanctimonious about diving because, well, it was the Argies wasn’t it and they deserved payback for the Hand of God.

British footballers are no strangers to bending the rules. It’s just that we do it differently here. The main difference between the British and continental styles of gamesmanship is that we Brits are considerably less theatrical. Footballers here are less inclined to tumble over in an exaggerated fashion or writhe around feigning injury. Under the traditional hard-man code of conduct in Britain, feigning injury was always frowned upon as essentially unmanly.

British diving exists but is far more understated. A player will ‘play for a penalty’ or ‘go to ground’ if there is contact but it won’t usually be accompanied by hammy amateur dramatics. But is an understated fall any less dishonest than an outrageously exaggerated tumble? Either way it’s conning the referee.

And while British players have generally eschewed the effeminate art of feigning injury, they have opted for alternative and more brutal forms of gamesmanship – an elbow in the ribs, studs raked down the back of the leg, or a sly off-the-ball punch. Before tackles from behind were outlawed in the mid-1990s it was common for thuggish hard men to intimidate opponents by putting in a ‘reducer’ early in the game.

A few years ago I watched grainy TV footage of the 1966 World Cup semi-final between England and Portugal and was struck by the brutal way that Nobby Stiles kicked lumps out of Eusebio – a very British form of gamesmanship. In the 1986 FA Cup Final, Wimbledon’s Vinnie Jones was credited with winning the midfield battle in the opening minute when he unceremoniously clobbered Liverpool’s Steve McMahon.

So, to return to my first question, what should be done about diving? The answer is nothing. There’s no need for a clampdown on diving. Simulation is already a cautionable offence and the fans are perfectly capable of dishing out abuse to players who they see as cheats. The problem is that it’s very difficult, even with video replays, to detect the more subtle instances of players going to ground under minimal contact.

Tougher penalties will only rid the game of the more preposterous examples of play-acting. But, in my mind, this would be a shame because there is considerable comedy value in the really hammy pieces of play-acting. Football, after all, is a form of theatre, so why would we want to get rid of the injury-feigning pantomime villains?

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