How do you solve a problem like diving?

Posted by Iain Macintosh

It is astonishing that Ashley Young doesn’t hurt himself more often. You only have to run near him to send him flying through the air like crockery off a bad magician’s tablecloth. Sir Alex Ferguson has warned him and David Moyes has warned him, but he seems insistent on hurling himself around like a furious toddler in a supermarket.

Unfortunately, until the authorities take firm action using a sensible structure of adjudication and punishment, this sort of thing will just keep happening. In England, diving has always been seen as something "the foreigners" brought into the country with them. You know, like a new strain of smallpox.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesMichael Owen in action vs. Argentina at the 1998 World Cup

The truth is that proud Anglo-Saxons like Francis Lee were chucking themselves over with impunity decades ago. The last vestiges of the "foreign" argument were swept away forever as long ago as 1998 when Michael Owen dropped to the ground like a stunned pigeon against Argentina, winning his nation a penalty that, believe it or not, very few English people complained about. It’s not a foreign problem. It’s an everybody problem.

However, there are two major obstacles that must be traversed before any debate about diving can begin. The first is rampant, widespread and frenzied "whatabouttery." If you skip down to the comments box now, you may already find incandescent accusations of bias from Manchester United supporters who didn’t get past the first paragraph and are now, in a stream of block capitals, demanding to know why I haven’t mentioned Luis Suarez.

Were I to mention Suarez, it would invite a volley of hate from Liverpool fans insistent that my reluctance to cite Gareth Bale or Wayne Rooney is evidence of my institutionalised racism, a product quite obviously of my clear imperial leanings.

For the purposes of this debate, therefore, it would be helpful if we all recognised that there isn’t a club in the world that remains untainted by this sin.

The second issue is perspective and the speed with which it can be discarded. For some, the crime of simulation is far, far worse than a dangerous tackle. Analysis of what is, after all, a harmless (in a physical sense at least) attempt to win an advantage soon descends into unbounded character assassination.

Divers become cheats, they become scum, they become the kind of vile, lawless animals who turn our Once Proud Game into nothing more than a bastion of rogues and villains. This sort of thing really isn’t very helpful, either.

Strip emotion away from the issue and all that remains is a situation where players are encouraged to deceive the officials because the rewards far outweigh the ramifications. It takes a very brave and very certain referee to show a yellow card for a dive.

It would be wonderful if every professional footballer played the game with honour and dignity, content in the belief that maintaining an unspoiled personal reputation is more of an achievement than, say, qualifying for the Champions League, but that seems a rather unlikely development.

The solution, therefore, is simple: firm, transparent, retrospective punishment. We already have panels to determine the seriousness of unseen physical offences, as witnessed for the first time this week with Fulham’s Sascha Riether. The German defender has just been banned for three games for kicking Adnan Januzaj up the bottom and then stamping on his calf.

We also have panels in place to assess the dubiousness of goals. Would it be so hard to have another panel to assess the guilt or otherwise of those who plummet to the turf in controversial circumstances? We can use the same panel, if it helps. It’s just slightly more money, another urn of tea and a second packet of biscuits. We can do this, people.

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It is far too much to expect referees to get it right in real time with no replays against a backdrop of 40,000 people screaming things about their mum. Not everyone is as bad at diving as Young. Suarez, for example, is brilliant at it. Why not take the burden away from the man with the whistle and hand the power to the panel?

Allow teams to put in official complaints about specific incidents, allow a panel to assess the allegations in peace and quiet with the benefit of all the technology we can muster and give them the power to hand down a one-match ban for every dive.

There are some people, wild-eyed, woolly-minded liberals, who believe that because everyone dives, there’s no point worrying about it but that’s just piffle. If we took a similar attitude to burglary, no one would have a TV.

Admittedly, it is more fun to pin all the blame on Young, doubly so if you support Liverpool or Manchester City, but it doesn’t help solve anything. Take the advantage away and you take the problem away. That’s the only way to stop the diving.

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