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Experts of the extracurricular

May 3, 2010
By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett
Special to

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event," copyright 2010 by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books. Available in bookstores May 4.

Diving is the province of slender continental players with speed, flair, and superb stunt-falling skills who delight in taking advantage of an era when flagrant violence is frowned upon -- and referees are easily impressed by drama-club theatrics. The Diver's signature trait is the ability, when merely brushed by a defender, to crumple to the ground as if riddled by a Kalashnikov. (Think Didier Drogba's operatic death spiral against Argentina in the 2006 World Cup, which was the equal of Willem Dafoe's slo-mo demise in "Platoon.") If a furtive glance at the referee indicates that a diver's acting has been rewarded with a yellow or red card to the opponent, he springs to his feet, not only unhurt, but totally rejuvenated. Because of its proven success, diving has gained momentum and turned some of soccer's most artful practitioners into shameless thespians. Sadly, this behavior proliferates in the World Cup, where so many flustered referees struggle to cope with the pace and chicanery of the players.

Click here to purchase the book.

Ronaldo, the FIFA 2008 World Player of the Year, has virtually no peer in the biathlon of athleticism and histrionics. As with everything else he does on a soccer field, Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro is nonpareil at the art of diving, but his propensity for play-acting diminishes his stature in comparison with other once-in-a-generation players like Pelé or George Best, who went down only when opponents took their legs out from under them. Ronaldo is so melodramatic that he sometimes appears to be imploring the ref to make the call even before he hits the ground.

On most occasions, Ronaldo has been hacked, but it's his constant writhing, pouting, and fingerpointing that taxes a referee's sympathy. Jorge Larrionda, the Uruguayan referee assigned to the center slot in the 2006 France-Portugal semifinal, was wholly unimpressed by Ronaldo's whirling dervish collapse minutes after Zidane's penalty kick had put France ahead 1-0. His dive in the box, jeered by the fans, was all the more egregious after he responded to England's Wayne Rooney's red card in the quarterfinal with a self-satisfied wink.

Justice was ultimately served, though. Portugal lost in the semis and, while fans voted overwhelmingly for Ronaldo, the award for the Best Young Player of the 2006 World Cup went to Germany's Lukas Podolski.

During the course of his illustrious career, the lanky blond striker was so fast and lethal that he earned the nickname "the Golden Bomber." In Italia '90, though, they should have dubbed him "Stuka" for all his dives. He unveiled his face-planting talents early in the tournament against an overmatched United Arab Emirates. Although the Germans won easily 5-1, Klinsmann went into death throes when a blade of grass grazed his ankle. On the biggest stage of all, the World Cup final against Argentina, Klinsi sank to the occasion again. Marauding down the right wing in the 65th minute of a hard-fought, deadlocked game, he was challenged by substitute defender Pedro Monzón, who slid, studs high, across his path. Looking like he had just stepped on a grenade, Klinsmann flew four feet through the air, kicking out his legs in a spasming jackknife and tumbling to earth like a rag doll. The game was stopped for several minutes as medics debated whether to summon a priest to administer last rites. In homage to Klinsmann's antics, the referee swiftly and subserviently red-carded the befuddled Monzón instead. Thanks to a late penalty kick before another Argentine was sent off, Germany lifted the trophy. Klinsmann, who had seemed close to death just minutes before, pogo'd along with his giddy teammates on the victory stand.

Years later, coach Berti Vogts proved Klinsi wasn't the only accomplished actor on the German team when he came to the defense of his star striker. "Jürgen Klinsmann was not a diver," Vogts said. "No. Never."

In 1998, Laurent Blanc, known as "Le President" for his commanding presence at the heart of the French defense, had scored the golden goal to help his team eliminate Paraguay in the round of 16, and was but 24 minutes away from realizing his childhood fantasy -- to represent Les Bleus in the World Cup final in his nation's capital.

Enter the Croatian pratfall artist known as Slaven Bilic. In a tense and tight semifinal at the Stade de France, Blanc and Bilic became entangled while awaiting a 75th-minute free kick into the Croatian box. There was a blur of bodies and then there was Bilic rolling on the ground, clutching his eye, as if he had been struck by a meteorite. In fact, Blanc had tapped Bilic lightly on the chin with an open hand, but Bilic grabbed the opportunity to hoodwink the Spanish referee, José García-Aranda, into brandishing a red card. It was the only sending off in Blanc's 97-match international career and his ejection meant that the 32-year-old was ineligible for the final.

The incident during the game changed nothing except the course of Blanc's life. The French defeated Croatia 2-1 and went on, four days later, to their epic glory in the City of Light. But Blanc was left behind. "I was sorry for Laurent," said French coach Aimé Jacquet. "The referee's decision was unjust. It took the shine off our victory celebrations."

Ever the gentleman, Blanc later said, "Of course I resented what he did and I always will resent it, but it's one unfortunate episode of a long journey that we all went on together. Today I forgive him."

Ever the Croatian clown, Bilic was remorseless. "He didn't hit me like Mike Tyson," he said, "but he gave me a push. ... The bottom line is that he made a mistake. Nobody can say he didn't and that was a red card, but because it was the final, and because it was in France, blahblahblahblah, it's a big story."

It was a big story, too, when Bilic was appointed manager of Croatia's national team in 2006. Known more for his rock star aura, complete with tattoos, diamond ear stud, and his own band, named Rawbau, as well as for his incessant smoking on the sidelines, he had little coaching experience but was beloved by his players for his maverick ways. In return, they could do no wrong in his eyes. When the Brazilian-born Croatian striker Eduardo, playing for his club team Arsenal, triggered a firestorm of controversy for appearing to dive in the box against Celtic in a 2009 Champions League qualifier, Bilic rushed to his defense. "We are talking about a player who is a role model of a sportsman," he said. "I simply cannot understand how he can be punished."

Maybe he should ask Laurent Blanc.

While Rivaldo may have been the 1999 FIFA World Player of the Year, he will forever be remembered as the Jerry Lewis of soccer vaudevillians.

Deep into extra time of a group match in which Rivaldo's 87th-minute penalty had given Brazil a 2-1 lead over Turkey, Brazil won a corner and Rivaldo, in the eyes of the agitated Turks, wasn't exactly rushing to put the ball in play. In frustration, Turkey's Hakan Ünsal kicked the ball at Rivaldo from about 10 yards away. Rivaldo could have easily caught the ball, placed it down, and taken the corner. Instead, he let it glance off his right thigh, whereupon he threw his hands up to cover his face as though he had just been splashed with battery acid and crumpled backward to the ground in the kind of writhing pain more commonly seen in triage units. Korean referee Joo-Kim Young wasted no time in red-carding Ünsal.

Ironically, the 2002 World Cup featured FIFA's much ballyhooed crackdown on what they euphemistically called "acts of simulation." Although unable to do anything about the unjust red-carding, the sport's governing body couldn't laugh off Rivaldo's theatrics.

"Such behavior," said FIFA's disciplinary chief Marcel Mathieu, "means that everybody is cheated, not only the opponents, but also the referee and particularly the fans."

"I'm leaving the referee to the Koreans," said an embittered Haluk Ulusoy, the president of the Turkish FA. "We sacrificed 1,000 soldiers to defend Korea and one Korean has killed 70 million Turks with this decision."

Brazil went on to win the World Cup, and Rivaldo earned the first-ever fine for simulation -- a paltry $7,300, probably less than he paid for his acting lessons. For his part, Rivaldo's poker-faced statement after the match showed him to be a man ready for high political office.

"I am not a player who fakes fouls," he said.