How do we solve a problem like diving? How do we even define a problem like diving? It’s rarely a black and white, yes or no issue that can be correctly evaluated and dealt with in the blink of an eye.
Of course there are the painfully obvious examples where individuals hit the turf as though someone has stolen their knees but what about when players genuinely come together? Unfortunately, in these common scenarios, ‘going to ground’ is usually the decisive factor in convincing a referee that a foul has taken place.
A perfect case in point is the penalty Steven Gerrard tucked away in the opening stages of Liverpool’s recent visit to the Britannia Stadium. Luis Suarez surged past Ryan Shawcross into the penalty area only for the Stoke defender to start physically undressing him.
The shirt tugging on its own will never be enough to bring Suarez to his knees, so he decides to throw his arms back and plummet to the earth, in an attempt to communicate to the officials that he has been clearly impeded. Is that unsporting behaviour? Perhaps, but if he doesn’t go to ground then he is unlikely to be awarded the penalty he undoubtedly deserves.
Another point for debate surrounds the antics that occur during set-pieces. Attackers and their designated markers repeatedly clash as they jostle for position, like two Mexican wrestlers putting on a show. However, because this is regular occurrence and happens between every couple in box, it’s very easy to miss or deem unimportant.
It is remarkably straightforward however, to spot during post-match analysis and has therefore put unnecessary pressure on referees to clamp down on it. Mark Clattenburg’s decision to penalise Norwich in their defeat to West Ham – for a typical and rather low-key incident – incensed the usually composed Chris Hughton. It’s simply impossible to develop a level of consistency in such instances, as players will always feel aggrieved when they concede such fouls and infuriated when they are not awarded at the other end of the pitch.
The reason this ‘contact = foul’ argument crumbles in our hands concerns the philosophy of Gareth Bale, who believes he is entitled to go down if he feels even the slightest whiff of physical connection.
“There is nothing I can do about it – the referees have to look a bit closer. If I get contact there it is a penalty or free kick.
“What do you expect me to do if I there is contact and I go over – hit my head on the floor? I am not going to stop going because it is a foul.” (Sky Sports)
The Tottenham talisman’s opinion is understandable but deeply flawed considering football is an unofficial yet recognised ‘contact sport’. If a foul were awarded every time players touched one another, the game would never end. The referee’s job is made impossible however, when he has to determine the impact of such a connection. Was he really knocked off balance? Could he have stayed on his feet? Are those screams of agony authentic?
The unfortunate truth is that the human race cannot be trusted. We are all instilled with a will to win, a trait that is magnified in the personality of professional athletes. Players will always seek to find a competitive advantage, consciously or not and when the margins between success and failure are so fine, their dishonourable actions may make all the difference.
If an individual’s unlawful theatrics have decided the outcome of a game then they can expect a torrent of abuse from the stands, negative exposure in the press and irritated fans clogging up radio phone-ins. All is forgotten however, once the next batch of fixtures arrives and a whole new set of talking points has arisen.
At the end of the day, once the dust has settled, the only thing that remains is the result and the smile that has been concealed from the culprit’s mouth. Their actions may make them heroes in the dressing room but they have no right to complain when their reputation comes back to haunt them.
The only apparent solution appears to involve an increase in retrospective action, where players can have cautions rescinded and awarded by an independent panel. Fines are somewhat futile, only the threat of suspension is likely to instigate change. Such punishments may not stop diving or even deter a player’s natural instincts but at least it will provide suitable reprimand to those who deserve it.