Gareth Bale became the first player in Premier League history to have earned himself a one-game suspension after picking up five yellow cards this season, three of them for going down easily, but is he being victimised or does he need to cut out this sort of behaviour from his game for good?
Firstly, the often used cliche by pundits and ex-pros when discussing the issue of diving is that they always argue ‘he’s going to get himself a reputation’. Well that horse has well and truly bolted. Bale undoubtedly has a reputation as a diver, earned for his quite awful fall at work incurred during the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal last season in winning a penalty for his side and he has picked up five cautions for diving since the start of last season.
I feel comfortable calling Bale a diver, just as I would Ashley Young, Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney. These are repeat offenders. These are not more examples of Johnny Foreigner over here sullying our good and honest game. These are British players, darn good ones at that, who use the rules and pace of the game to their advantage. It’s cheating, there’s no other word for it.
Bale stated after the Sunderland win where he earned his fifth booking of the season: “That’s three times now I’ve been clipped and booked for no reason. People keep saying I’m diving, but if there’s contact it’s not diving. Referees need to look more closely.” Presumably then, the other two times were indeed actual dives by his own admission.
An excuse has began to fester away at the footballing establishment and has gradually been accepted as a reason for a player going down so easy; namely that Bale travels at such speed that even the slightest touch knocks him off course and brings him down. Alan Hansen even used it when trying to claim that his dive against Sunderland was indeed a penalty. It’s laughable really and it’s only used because Bale is actually an exceptional footballer when he’s not trying to con the referee. Would Emerson Boyce have been given such a ridiculous benefit of the doubt had he gone over? Or Titus Bramble for that matter? No, of course they wouldn’t, because they don’t happen to be very good or play for big, fashionable clubs.
To quote from The Laws of the Game: “A player must be cautioned for unsporting behaviour if (he)…attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to be fouled.” The Sunderland foul serves as a case in point, Bale has glided past Craig Gardner at pace and beaten him, driving into the left-hand side of the box before he inexplicably tumbles at the slightest glance of an arm against his rib cage. It’s a tricky one to ponder, for he has not feigned injury as such, but with his man beaten, he is most certainly pretending to be fouled. Would he have gone over so easily anywhere else on the pitch if the reward of a penalty was not on offer? Probably not.
Sometimes players can get penalised for staying on their feet after being knocked off balance by a rough challenge or two, but that didn’t appear to be the case with Bale here; his path didn’t deviate and while surging past Gardner, neither of his feet were clipped nor did they change angle, they just appeared to collapse under the weight of expectation that was the pressure placed on the referee to make a decision. Aaron Lennon on the opposite flank is just as fast but seems to shrug off these sorts of challenges because guess what? He’s not a diver. The tag has stuck, but there’s a reason for that and being defended by David Ginola of all people will not help his cause much. Next up, Robert Pires.
Nevertheless, the flip side of that coin shows you that while the Sunderland one was a dive, not every single booking that Bale has picked up has been the correct decision, with referees obviously mindful of his reputation. Match officials are not supposed to let the media or external influences effect their decision-making, but that’s both naive and unavoidable and in some ways, the Tottenham man has become a victim of past indiscrections.
The validity of a foul is no longer the only barometer by which they are judged it seems when Bale is concerned, external influences are playing a part and all the opposition has to do now is throw their arms up in the air in mock outrage and harangue the referee to see the decision go in their favour. Plenty of careers have been ruined by the sort of filthy challenges that players like Bale have suffered in the past, and there’s something to be said for him trying to dive out of the way of them, such as the yellow he picked up against Reading. The terrible Charlie Adam challenge from last season and in pre-season this term have clearly left more mental scars than physical ones.
Bale is fast by footballing standards, but he does not run at 25mph; he is not a professional sprinter and he can’t be expected to find a way around every cynical challenge that comes his way, but the theatrical nature of his tumbles leaves a lot to be desired and distorts how we view what at times is a genuine foul on him, like the one he was booked for against Fulham.
Moreover, he has left himself in an increasingly difficult position now, does he continue to flail his limbs and arch his back at the slightest contact in the future or does he now simply take the hit? There’s a legitimate case to be made that he could get seriously hurt and his suspension has served as little more than a green light for some of the league’s nastier players to have a free-for-all.
Much like Luis Suarez and his relationship with Liverpool fans, Tottenham supporters will be delighted to have a player of the quality of Bale in their squad but embarrassed by his artful mastery of the game’s darker arts. The Welshman has the potential to be a world-class player, he’s not quite there yet, but in a year or two’s time he wouldn’t look out of place in a side like Real Madrid’s.
With manager Andre Villas-Boas going as far as to call him ‘persecuted’ in recent weeks, while there may be an element of truth to that assertion, the player hasn’t helped himself at any point this past year either and the reputation he’s garnered is entirely fair, even if the suspension itself wasn’t – straddling some sort of middle ground between avoiding contact and diving is a tricky one to quantify, and all boils down to one question – does all simulation count as diving? Only retrospective action, both awarding and rescinding cards, is the fairest future path to take.