A Different Opinion – Diving intervention – How UEFA and the general public are falling over themselves for the wrong reasons

Ah yes, diving. Also known as cheating. Also known as tearing down all that we good British stand for in sports across the board when it comes to fair play. This Friday regular article is posted online in quite the same manner as Eduardo’s tumble at the Emirates in midweek – better late than never. The incident witnessed at the Arsenal-Celtic game sadly brought up the age-old debate of diving once again. But as a football-loving nation, are we correct to always come down on the side of ‘fair-play’ and indeed, what constitutes fair play in today’s game?

Let us be clear on what we are talking about. There are four elements of the game to consider here and they are –

1) The free-kick – a fundamental element to the game of football – professional or amateur. It is a way of restarting play after a foul has been committed. Free-kicks in association football are awarded by a fully-qualified and neutrally appointed, match official.

2) The foul – This is a deliberate act committed by a player to gain an unfair advantage in play over their opponent.

3) Playing for free kicks – players have become savvy to the affect their reaction can have to the award of a free-kick and over time have developed numerous methods and schemes to convince the referee that they have indeed been fouled, whether or not they have.

4) Diving – see 2)

Why is diving still singled out in 2009 as being any different to any other foul in the sport? Did Eduardo really deceive the referee? Yes of course, but to punish him for pulling the wool over the match officials’ eyes is a huge, miscalculated overreaction from UEFA.

Most fans may go a little red-faced when they witness one of their club’s players caught out diving in a game, but they still applaud that same player at the end of the game. Diving is part of the game, it should be considered so for all the good and bad it can bring to a match. If a player falls over claiming to have been caught by an opponent when, in fact real-time and replays both highlight a two-foot gap between the players in question, then by all means, that is cheating – it is attempting to gain an unfair advantage and punishable like any other foul in the game, with play allowed to continue from the award of a free-kick. Just like when a player misjudges a tackle and stops his opponent from continuing the game in an unfair manner.

UEFA’s decision to punish Eduardo for simulation, after the game itself, highlights once more the organisation’s outdated approach to the game they govern. As much as the idea of restricting foreign players in each league is old-fashioned and poorly conceived some 14 years after the historic Bosman ruling, the judgment over the Eduardo decision is aimed at the wrong party and tries once again to solve the wrong problem.

“What if the ref does see it and books the player, awarding a free-kick to the opposition? That is what happened in the Fiorentina game, where goalscorer Stevan Jovetic went down in the box and Howard Webb carded him. Jovetic gets a yellow card but Eduardo is looking at missing two games just because referee Manuel Gonzalez wasn’t as good as Webb – surely enough evidence to ban the Spanish official?” – Mark Jones touched upon the issue in his article The famous dive – the failure in the Arsenal-Celtic tie was that of the referee. The match official failed to recognise the incident as a dive and should therefore be considered for post-match punishment, just as other referees are for failing to award other decisions in games, such as fouls going unpunished. Eduardo’s dive was a deliberate act by the player to gain an unfair advantage in open play – the fault does not lie with the player, but rather the match official appointed to oversee the implementation of the game’s rules.

UEFA’s reaction to the incident only worsens an attitude the general footballing public and Press still cling on to from decades past – that players are honest, play fair, and love their clubs. We have all seen in recent years the erosion of part of that myth – it can generally be accepted now that footballers play for the highest bidder, and kiss the badge of the richest brand. And just as they are paid hundreds of thousands each week to play and more importantly win games, fair-play is not at the forefront of achieving their goals. That is not to say that players break the rules or cheat week in, week out to win unfairly. But the vision of fair-play has evolved with the game over the years. Players now do everything in their power to win the game, within the limitations of the game, and in that sense fair-play reigns supreme – players are caught out by the 20-odd cameras at each game now, so are even more careful with their game, outwitting their opponent each match with the same rulebook used 100 years ago. Andrea Tallarita’s fantastic article on sister site Football Italiano, highlights the expertise and imagination that goes into this by the exponents of guile – the Italians.

Imagine a scenario with a player in possession of the ball running at a defender. For argument’s sake and to makes things as easy to follow as possible, the player with the ball in this case is Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst the defender he is running at is Richard Dunne – a nice, Manchester derby feel to spice things up.

As Ronaldo approaches Dunne with the ball, there are options available to both players. Ronaldo can either run past the defender and maintain possession, gaining an immediate positional advantage over his opponent, or he can run at Dunne, wait for a challenge and go down to win a free-kick, and therefore a tactical, and time-delaying advantage for his team. At the same time, Dunne’s options are similar – either challenge for the ball and prevent the player gaining the advantage, or allow him past to wait for a better opportunity to challenge. The goals for both parties are simple, but the methods far from it.

Should Ronaldo choose to run at Dunne and wait for the challenge, then he forces the decision on to the defender. If Dunne sticks a leg out and makes contact with the ball, the defender wins the duel and the advantage is his team’s. However, if he sticks out his leg and makes contact with Ronaldo first, or only with Ronaldo, then Ronaldo wins the duel, goes down, wins the free-kick and the advantage. Yellow card or warning to Dunne.

But, if Dunne goes into the duel with Ronaldo and is able to deceive the Portuguese into thinking he will make a challenge, by say, motioning to stick his leg out to make the challenge, only to quickly withdraw it, should Ronaldo not anticipate that fast counter-motion, he goes down, without contact being made and is promptly booked and heckled by the crowd for diving. Yellow card or warning to Ronaldo.

Players go through these motions and possible outcomes countless times over a stretch of 90 minutes. It is part of the game. There is nothing wrong with playing for a free-kick if the free-kick is rightly awarded. As the scenario showed however, the defender is just as savvy to the likely outcomes of every challenge in a game and can win the duel with his own form of gamesmanship. Just as Ronaldo can make Dunne look cynical for committing the foul on the player, so can Dunne for drawing the dive from Ronaldo. It works both ways on the pitch, in the individual duels. The letter of the law follows this – fouls accumulate and eventually see the defender booked, whilst simulation by the attacker is also punishable by a yellow card.

But do we as a nation deride a defender when they have clattered into an opponent, committed a foul and picked up a card? No, not unless the player tackling was Joey Barton or Michael B

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