If one were to cut a cross-section of the Premier League, last weekend’s clash between Stoke City and Swansea City would be at the heart of it; two mid-table clubs of contrasting styles, exhibiting the quality and variety of the English top flight.
Controversy is another key component of the Premier League, but amid the Potters’ 2-1 win on Sunday afternoon, it amalgamated in its most despicable and dishonest form – diving.
Theatrics and simulation are considered a foreign disease, a far cry from the English stereotype of tough-tackling hard men – the Terry Butchers, John Terrys and Steven Gerrards of this world – too trapped by the insecurities of their own masculinity to willingly throw their bodies to ground, even in the name of victory.
But when Stoke City’s Victor Moses, a product of Crystal Palace’s academy and part of the English youth system since childhood, finds no affliction in propelling himself unassisted towards the floor of the penalty box, fooling Michael Oliver into awarding a spot kick, clearly diving has become a very English, home-grown problem. Exhibit B? The proverbial and literal falls of former England winger Ashley Young.
And problems in English football can only truly be resolved by one entity – the feckless, toothless, commission-creating FA, which explains why any serious action against diving is yet to be taken.
In fact, the Football Association are more concerned with protecting the integrity of their referees, despite clear, video evidence of Michael Oliver’s erroneousness, calling a hearing with outspoken Swansea boss Garry Monk to explain the use of the word ‘cheat’ in his post-match interview, than actually punish Victor Moses for feigning foul and forcing a decision that transformed the momentum of the 2-1 affair.
Of course, referees have an incredibly tough, unenviable job, forced to make result-defining, inevitably subjective calls through their own interpretation of the rules, their position on the pitch in reference to the event and the influence of hot-headed, partisan crowds.
One can forgive Oliver for making a mistake, but if television companies can clear up controversial refereeing decisions in a matter of seconds via the powers of video replay, why can’t the FA? If they want diving to stop completely, safeguarding the justice of the beautiful game, English football’s governing body must introduce retrospective punishments.
The catch 22 is that every club in England, be it Manchester United or Macclesfield Town, has benefited from diving somewhere along the line, albeit some more proficiently than others. That explains why Greg Dyke’s plans to include diving as part of the legislation package that gave the FA the power to retrospectively punish Fernando Torres for scratching Jan Vertonghen last season were rejected by the Premier League and the Football League.
Perhaps naively and amid a fit of angst, Monk used his post-match interview to set a precedent of dropping any Swansea player caught attempting the horizontal con. A noble principle by all means, but equally, a self-imposed disadvantage that the other 19 Premier League clubs won’t be sticking by. The ambiguity of what counts as a genuine dive, simulation or simply failing to stay on your feet, further complicates matters.
The FA can’t make decisions in a vacuum but they are the lawmakers – requesting permission from the football clubs to take a tougher stance on diving is like asking the mafia’s opinion on the correct form of punishment for homicide.
Furthermore, the solution is a largely simple one, albeit dependent on diligence; any player who clearly attempts to influence a refereeing decision through simulation or play-acting and can be proved to do so by video replay – be it a misdemeanour as mild as winning a free-kick or as serious as getting an opponent sent off – is immediately issued a one-match ban. Equally, if a referee punishes a player for diving in-game, through the form of a yellow card, that too comes with a one-match ban, although they’re allowed to remain on the pitch.
The more revolutionary amongst you might even entertain the idea of a new card introduced specifically for diving, separating the one-match ban offence from normal yellow cards. Perhaps a colour of the garish variety, it would double-up as a proverbial dunce-hat – a psychological, stigmatising embarrassment to any player receiving one and a clear indication of his sins.
Of course, many decisions will be contested and controversial, some players will be wrongly convicted.
But every Premier League manager – including Garry Monk – is at heart, a pragmatist. That’s not to say they actively promote diving, but they’re equally unlikely to discourage a practice that can decide results to their advantage in a results-based industry.
Mark Hughes for example, took no time in leaping to the defence of Victor Moses, claiming the ‘cheat’ accusations are “unjust and not correct”. We saw a similar pattern last season, with Jose Mourinho refusing to condemn Ramires’ last-minute dive that in-effect earned Chelsea a point from the clutches of defeat against West Bromwich Albion.
Thus, until the rewards are monolithically outweighed by the potential punishments, until not only referees and pundits, but also managers, are forced to accept the collective stance against diving, it will continue to plague the English game.
The FA must instigate a war against diving, and the greatest weapon in their armoury, by far, is retrospective action.