The British like to see themselves as paragons of virtue. Playing the game (whatever that game may be), in the right spirit, with a stiff upper lip and a sense of fair-play. Of course football has rarely been like that. There were enough scandals to fill many a paper even in the old days, and thuggery was a common occurrence both off and on the pitch, but even nowadays barely a minute passes in a football match without some form of cheating, be it claiming a throw-in you know not to be yours, feigning injury, diving, or just trying to influence the referee. Cheating in all its forms is part of the game – but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.
One of the most irritating aspects of the past year is how football’s most hateable figure turned out to be a sensible and erudite football pundit. But whilst I’ve agreed with most of what Gary Neville has said during this season, I can’t back him up on the issue of diving. In an article he penned for the Daily Mail last week, he wrote about how a practice that initially disgusted him and his fellow youth team colleagues soon became accepted as they progressed into the first team, and through Champions League campaigns.
“Quite soon we were all playing for United’s first team in Europe. And that’s when the real education began. Between 1995-1999, when we won our first Champions League, we learned tactical and technical lessons, but we also had an education in other aspects of the game: running the clock down, slowing the game down, tactical fouls and, yes, winning a free-kick. Slowly it dawned on us. This isn’t going to change. This is the way the game is played at a global level. It doesn’t matter what Gary Neville from Bury thinks. This is the game at the top level.”
“So gradually your thinking changes. You might say your morality weakens. Certainly the value system you grew up with is challenged.”
“The game we play in England has changed. It is now influenced by the global game and how it is played. Only around 35 per cent of players starting this weekend will be English. And just as those Italian parents would get so het up about Nicky Butt, we have to accept that different cultures have different value systems.”
“At the end of it all I’m in a moral daze because I can see my values have changed so much. And, when I analyse it, I realise over time I’ve come to accept other people’s values.”
“In the same way our game has changed and the authorities are not going to accommodate English cultural attitudes into their refereeing. I do understand why we get so upset about diving. I’m sad that the innocence of the seven-year-old has been lost. In some ways I like the purity that game represented. But it’s not the game we play any more.”
That’s fair enough. But the attitude of fans is always going to be different to that of players. The problem with clamping down on diving is that there is such a thin line between a dive, a stumble, and ensuring contact with an opposition player. It would be hard to punish Ashley Young for his two efforts as there was contact despite the fact he engineered it in one instance and was lightly brushed in the other. Players such as Gareth Bale have argued that they have dived to avoid a crunching tackle, to get out of the way. So where do we draw the line? Only a blatant dive could realistically be punished. A friend came up with a suggestion that if a player dives and then claims a penalty, then he should be open to retrospective punishment, as it is proof of trying to con the referee – and it sounds like a good idea to me. Either way, it’s unlikely that any clampdown will occur.
There is a valid point, as made by Neville, to be made that English football is part of a global game, financed, staffed and played by English and foreigners alike. It is hard to eradicate a practice that many in the game don’t have a problem with. And if the English game completely clamped down on diving, then it would fall foul when in European competition, when suddenly the old rules persist, where different ideals exist.
And what’s more diving works. It gets Ashley Young two penalties, when being properly fouled and staying on your feet often results in no reward, and the thought from the fans that “he should have gone down there”.
My problem is that such practices are diluting my enjoyment of the game. Take El Clasico this weekend. What on paper should be one of the most exciting games of the season will inevitably be reduced to me shouting abuse at the screen after yet another player lies crying on the pitch clutching his ankle after the merest of contact. I will never stop watching or loving football, that much I know, but sometimes my patience is tested, and I can understand why some have fallen out of love with the modern game. It seems winning at all costs is the game’s only mantra now.
But whilst writing this blog and watching football over the past week, I have begun to realise there’s something much worse than diving anyway. Diving is there to try and win a goal, by any means (as players seem to lose their balance most when suddenly entering penalty areas). It can have a consequence of further punishment for the opposition player, but I would speculate that most dives aren’t committed with that aim in mind. There is one form of “cheating” though that seeks not only to gain an advantage in play, but to also cheat the opposition, and to con the referee into punishing the other team further – it’s the feigning of injury. Didier Drogba gave a masterclass in it this week, though I think his intentions may have been partly (if not mostly) to disrupt the game, and Barcelona’s rhythm. For a true master of the dark arts however, look no further than Franck Ribery’s ninety-minute display of life-threatening tackles from Real Madrid that I presume have ruled him out of the game for at least six months. It truly was a pathetic spectacle to behold, and what’s more, like El Clasico to come, it totally ruined my enjoyment of a greatly-anticipated match. But even more than diving, how could you possibly prove a player was feigning injury? And like the boy who cried wolf, taking a harder attitude on injured players will one day leave someone in real peril.
So it’s fine to want to eradicate diving out of the English game – it’s much harder to actually implement it. And whilst other countries have banned players for diving retrospectively, a sign that it can work and act as a warning to all players, let’s not forget that it’s not the only problem with the game right now, and if we are serious about cleaning up the game, then let’s look at other forms of cheating too.