Tuesday night's ESPN FC show brought about an interesting discussion about diving and what can be done about it. Alexi Lalas argued that it was part of the game, no worse a form of cheating than two-footed tackles over the top of the ball. Craig Burley countered that no, it was different, because you might make a bad tackle unintentionally in an attempt to win the ball. Yet when you choose to take a dive on the other hand, you're deliberately cheating.
(Personally, I'm with Alexi. For a bad tackle to be deemed "unsporting behaviour" and punishable with a caution, it must involve recklessness. And you choose to be reckless.)
It got me thinking afterwards about the Laws of the Game (PDF) and how the vast majority of offenses don't even take intent into account. The exception are those involving "unsporting behaviour" -- a compendium of offences that includes reckless fouls, tactical fouls, time-wasting, handball and simulation. They also include more esoteric things like switching places with the goalkeeper without the referees' consent or making "unauthorized marks on the field of play." (And no, I don't know what authorized marks might be, or when a referee might "authorize" a player to mark up the pitch.)
In virtually all other situations a referee simply reacts to what he sees. Trip an opponent in an attempt to get the ball and it's a foul. Attempt an overhead kick in a crowded penalty box inches from someone's face and it's dangerous play. In neither case does the referee ask himself whether the defender meant to commit an infraction.
- Twellman: Hit players with fines
- Stein: NBA's attitude to simulation
- Burley: Form a committee
- Lalas: Flopping isn't offensive
- Walton: Punish retroactively
- Ledwith: Give Neymar benefit of doubt
But with simulation and reckless tackles -- the most frequent source of yellow cards -- the referee is asked to judge what was going through the player's mind.
For reckless fouls: Did he intentionally disregard his duty of care towards his opponent? (Or worse, deliberately try to injure him?)
For simulation: Did he intentionally try to deceive the referee by "feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled"?
Match officials have a hard enough time determining what actually happened. On top of this we’re asking them to determine why it happened, and that adds a whole other layer of complexity to this. Particularly when they’re asked to do this with a single, real-time view and in the space of a few seconds.
First, some good news. Globally (and this is just my impression) it appears that simulation is on the wane. The British leagues may well be an exception in that it's pretty undeniable that what we saw in the early 1990s is substantially different to what we witness today. (That said, older readers may remember one Francis Lee in the 1970s.)
Perhaps it's a byproduct of globalization, but what happened with regularity in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of simulation occurs less often today. It may not seem that way, but we have more coverage with more cameras today. It's easier for players who do dive to develop reputations as a result and that creates a deterrent. So too, obviously, do the yellow cards for simulation. Referees, on the main, are better as well -- again, they don't always appear that way because they are subject to far more scrutiny than ever before. And, tangentially perhaps, the popularity of the Premier League and the image (idealized or otherwise) of the English game have also had an influence.
Yet it's still there and we're debating what can be done about it.
Retroactive punishment is a popular idea. A referee gets conned, a video replay shows he was conned, so you suspend and fine the player who cheats.
Theoretically it's a great idea. In practice, there are two cogent counterarguments.
First -- and we saw this in the few situations when it has been attempted -- it's actually very difficult to definitively establish that someone has cheated. In 2009, Arsenal striker Eduardo won (and converted) a penalty in a game against Celtic. (I couldn't find the video on YouTube; pretty sure if you hunt around, you'll find it somewhere.) UEFA charged him with deceiving the referee and banned him for two games. It was overturned on appeal after Arsenal argued the evidence was inconclusive, while the referee himself argued that his original decision was correct. It looks like a dive in the sense that there is no obvious, conclusive contact. But, frankly, you simply can't be 100 percent sure. He could well have leaped over the goalkeeper to avoid contact and fallen in the process. There's no telling what went through his mind.
A similar situation occurred in Italy when they tried to implement this retrospective punishment a few years back. If memory serves, Tommaso Rocchi was the only player banned under those regulations (and even then it caused endless debate) simply because you couldn't be sure and you couldn't do it "on the balance of probabilities." Why not? Because otherwise you're re-refereeing the game and undermining the referee's judgment.
The other is that the damage has already been done. If you lose a game because your opponent cheated and then he gets a three-match ban, it won’t help you. There's no redress, just a level of deterrence to the guy who simulated. And you could argue that in some cases, it can hurt you. For example, imagine Atletico Madrid and Barcelona are tied on points with four weeks to go in the Liga season. Cristiano Ronaldo dives to win a penalty that earns Real Madrid a draw against Barcelona. He gets a three-match ban. In the next game, Real Madrid host Atletico without Ronaldo. That ends up hurting Barcelona and helping Atletico.
(Some might raise a third counterargument: the increasing reliance on video technology and replays -- the whole "slippery slope" idea. Personally, it doesn't bother me at all.)
The issue is that there are plenty of examples of cheating that really can't be policed in these circumstances. Like the classic one in which a striker leaves his leg hanging anticipating contact. Or ones like Eduardo, when you jump to avoid contact. Or indeed, situations in which there is minimal contact but the player lets himself fall as soon as he feels it. (Contrary to the impression you might get watching some folks talk over slow-motion replays, simply because there is contact doesn't mean a foul is committed.)
So what do we do?
I'd suggest that this is a situation in which the perfect is the enemy of the good, as the old aphorism goes. Rather than using retrospective panels to assess difficult-to-judge diving incidents, punish that which is obvious -- in particular those excessive, absurd reactions. I'm talking about crap like this from Newcastle's James Perch. Or this from Rivaldo. Or, indeed, if you like this sort of thing, here's a whole compilation that includes one of my all-time favorites from Chile's Bryan Carrasco (it's No. 3, the one when he grabs his opponent's arm, uses it to whack himself in the face and then throws himself to the ground).
That's right: punish the extremes. Cover them in public ridicule. Ensure that it hurts their image which, in turn, may well hit them in the wallet.
What will change all this, ultimately, is moral suasion. As former referee Peter Walton pointed out, there's a risk-reward problem right now. The punishment for simulation is a yellow card, the reward is a penalty or a red card to an opponent that could swing a match. In those circumstances, too many are tempted. (The problem is, you can’t really change that. Giving a red for simulation may well end up with even fewer simulations being called, because the referee would feel he'd need to be even more certain due to its potential impact on the game. It's a bit like the way you very rarely see someone get a second yellow for simulation.)
But what we can do is highlight these incidents. Punish the most egregious ones. Highlight the ones that are debatable. Do so intelligently. (Getting rid of this absurd trope we too often hear whereby "either it's a penalty or it's a yellow for simulation" would be a start: there is such a thing a no-call in football.)
Ultimately, naming and shaming may well be the most effective tool we have. Even more than setting up panels to sit in judgment and try to extrapolate what went through a player's mind.