Blemishes on the beautiful game, Part 2: Is diving really a problem?

Posted on July 8, 2010

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Diving is not the story of this World Cup, by any stretch. And I’ve been too wrapped up in what’s been great about the tournament — namely, the tactical match-ups and play on the pitch — to blog about this perennial and revealing issue.

As I noted in the previous post, diving seems to be a particular problem, for somewhat different reasons, for the English and North Americans. And I notice that in soccer blogs in other footballing nations there is a tendency to dismiss these Anglo-Saxon concerns. Accordingly, I will weigh in on what’s wrong and what’s right about the Anglo-Saxon, and especially the American, take on diving.

What American Sports Fans Get Wrong About Diving

1. Some of the complaints about diving are based on some of the most egregious, pantomimish dives in recent history (see, e.g., this top-10 highlight reel). You know: the collapsing after no real contact, the clutching of a body part that was not touched, the hands to the face, the writhing around like the field was a frying pan. But these are in fact pretty rare in top-flight leagues and major international competitions, including the one we have just witnessed. In fact, I think there has been a lot less of this behavior in this World Cup than in other recent editions.

2. Do we really think it would be impossible to put together a highlight reel of players faking being fouled and/or injured in sports like American football, basketball, and hockey? OK, maybe there’s less face-covering or writhing; but the moral dimension of the behavior is no different.

3. Some of the critiques of diving come from commentators, talk-radio hosts and callers, etc, who have no particular interest in soccer and don’t watch it, but simply want to portray it as less manly than traditional American sports. There’s no reason to take these criticisms seriously, at least not until we move the debate over to the issue of the comparative worthiness of different sports, or to the way we talk about sports to play out culture wars. But that debate has almost nothing to do with diving in soccer.

4. Even when there are no egregious dives, it is not uncommon to see a match in which players will drop to the ground dozens of times. Most of these look like dives to many North American sports fans who know that, say, hockey and American football players are able to keep their balance in the face of much more contact. On closer inspection, though, many of these tumbles are easily explicable, and just as common in North American contact sports.

(a) For one thing, people who have not played soccer often fail to appreciate just how painful many of those apparently harmless tackles can be, especially even minor glances off bare ankles, Achilles tendons, and the place where the foot bone joins the leg bone on the top. And since soccer is a flow sport where there can be minutes between whistles, there is often no option but to drop to the floor and request a stoppage. This is usually not perceived as gamesmanship (when the pain is real); it’s a convention accepted by players on both teams. And it takes place within the context of a ritual display of sportsmanship: where the team in possession kicks the ball out of bounds, and the other team throws the ball back to them when play resumes.

(b) Of course, many players drop to the ground even when they have not been hurt, tripped, or knocked over. But even many of these tumbles are not perceived as diving by their opponents or the refs. Many North American commentators who have not played soccer are less than fully informed of the written and unwritten rules about what kinds of tackles and contact are permitted or not permitted. E.g. you are not allowed to stick a leg out in front of another player if you don’t get the ball, and you’re almost never allowed to tackle from behind. The player with the ball is not required to try to evade these illegal tackles. It is again an accepted convention that you can go down lightly when interfered with in these ways, and the ref is happy to call the foul. In a sport where there may be no ref within 20 yards of the foul, and where his view may be obscured, this is often seen as an acceptable way of pointing out the foul. Indeed, playing on when there is no advantage to doing so will signal to the referee that there was no foul.

(c) Note: signaling to the referee that a foul has been committed is just as common in North American pro sports. If a stick touches a hockey player’s face (which is an automatic penalty) he will always grab his face and check for blood (since blood increases the penalty time). Receivers in the NFL will signal when there’s been contact, and in some cases will go to the ground, as will basketball players. Quarterbacks, kickers, and punters in the NFL will almost always drop to the ground if they are contacted after releasing the ball, look to the referees, and signal for a flag. The biggest difference in soccer is that it is much less likely that the referee will have a good, close look at the foul, because these other sports have more officials on duty and/or smaller surfaces for the referee to cover.

In sum, so far: a lot of what looks like diving to many casual American viewers for soccer is either (a) not faking, or (b) not particularly different from what is seen in North America’s favorite contact sports.

BUT… there is no question that not all diving in soccer can be explained away like this. Many tumbles are cheating plain and simple — in fact, cheating of one of the most despicable sorts. When and why? Stay tuned for part 3.

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