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Is Diving Actually Bad?
A player has the ball in the box. A defender comes towards the player. The player goes down easily. Penalty. Goal.
We’ve all seen it happen a million times. We’ve probably seen it so much, in fact, that we’ve become desensitised to the whole thing. During the 2018 World Cup, Neymar got an intense level of scrutiny for what seemed to me like pretty normal diving. The truth was just that a whole lot of people who don’t pay attention to club football were tuning into the World Cup, and they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. To them, it was a stain on the very morality of sport. To me, it was Tuesday.
There are certainly people living and breathing football, though, who can’t stand diving. Take Burnley manager Sean Dyche as an example. He’s someone who sees the act as “not respecting the actual game and what it stands for”. Bold call, but one he clearly believes with all his heart, as he explained in August 2019 after a defeat to Arsenal:
“Name me another professional sport where you can physically get told ‘you can cheat at least once’ and you just get ‘don’t do that again’. I find that incredible.
“I have to remind everyone how clear I am with this, we’re not talking about gamesmanship, we’re not talking about cleverness, we’re not talking about someone who taps you in the box and you go down, that’s been there for 100 years.
“We’re talking about no one touching anyone and people falling on the floor.”
Or after a loss to Chelsea in November of that same year:
“This is about the biggest picture of the game. We get told to respect everything and everyone, but the powers that be and certain players at certain times are not respecting the actual game and what it stands for.
“I’m not talking about gamesmanship and clearness of players, that’s been there forever. I was a centre half, and not a very good one, and if a centre forward goes past me and I clip his ankles and he goes down that’s my fault and I accept that.
“We’re talking about blatant diving, people who get no contact at all.
“These are highly powered and highly athletic players who have incredible balance, and yet somehow they seem to be going to ground all over the place with minimal touch and I think it’s unacceptable.”
Dyche uses a bug bear of mine and describes diving as “cheating”, but I digress. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thinking as held by “dinosaurs” like Dyche, longing for an old world of clear cut morals that never really existed. But this would be a false binary. It’s a legitimate discussion about things we want to see on the football pitch, and one many “smart” people have differing views on.
Take Twenty3’s data analyst and content creator (and friend of mine) Mark Thompson’s view as an example. Mark wrote a recent newsletter (you should all subscribe) arguing why he shares the anti-diving position, and why we shouldn’t just dismiss this as reactionary ramblings from out of touch old men:
“While I imagine many people may disagree with parts of my opinion or reasoning, I think some things here are undeniable and should form the base for all future discussions about diving:
There are different types of dive, of varying forms of legitimacy
Diving makes refereeing more difficult, for obvious ‘muddying the waters’ reasons
Diving is a deception, although I expect a lot of disagreement over how much deception there is elsewhere in the game and how much this matters
“Different people will have different feelings and values that they put on certain things within the game. Even though this is my view on diving and why it rubs me up the wrong way, I don’t think that it is necessarily wrong for someone else to see it differently. It just isn’t how I view the sport — diving is bad, to me.”
I don’t think there’s too much to be argued with over his first point. Different forms of simulation exist depending on the situation and level of contact. Everyone from Dyche to Neymar can broadly get onboard with this.
The argument about making the referees’ lives harder is something I have sympathy with. We know it bothers them because they will tell you as much:
This, I think, speaks to a problem that goes far beyond football. The referee is supposed to be the neutral arbiter, filling the role as the figure who ensures a level playing field and enforces the rules both sides abide by. When everyone goes home, the highly paid professionals might live much more lavish lifestyles than the more modestly earning referee. But for 90 minutes, they are the most powerful person on the football pitch. The referee has a monopoly on use of legitimate force. As with any society, this all runs on a level of trust. When a player dives, they attempt to deceive the referee, and irreparably damage that trust.
That word seems to be in short supply these days. We’re in a world where people have “had enough of experts”, where institutions previously seen as neutral arbiters are having their entire credentials called into question, in which something as straightforward as a clear election result is completely dismissed by one side. It’s easy to blame this all on the internet and the spread of disinformation suddenly calling these upstanding institutions into question, but that ignores their own agency. Trust has to be earned, and there are many ways in which these organisations’ real problems have been laid bare to be ruthlessly exploited by the most nefarious forces.
The same is true of football. With the internet combing over the cameras at every game, individual decisions have never been more scrutinised. VAR and its endless line drawing over replays have both magnified and shifted the focus in interesting ways. We still receive a great deal of discussion over the referees, now added with the VAR official, making “errors”. It’s worse because they “should” be getting it right all the time now, as though humans are ever capable of that. But, more interestingly, it’s increasingly brought the rules themselves into question. The laws of the game, as I’m sure you’re aware at this point, are determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). As organisations go, IFAB aren’t exactly democratic. Half the board is made up of the FAs from the UK’s four home nations, while the other half comes from the entire rest of the world. Even ignoring this imbalance, who elects these people? Are players, coaches, fans adequately consulted on the panel and made sure their voices are heard? Are they fuck.
This has been rising for a long time, but it isn’t new. Think about how many times you’ve heard football fans complain about a refereeing decision go against them, or some nitpick-y interpretation of the rules punish their side. Players care a great deal about what they do. You think they’re not sitting in the dressing room after the game angry about the decisions? You think they haven’t talked about how much they think a particular referee has it in for them? Of course they have.
The very authority of the rules and those who enforce them is questioned more and more, in football and in society. How can you expect players to show the dignity of not diving to win a penalty when they can’t even trust in the decision making process? The rules are decided in a way that is, at best, ambivalent towards their interests. It goes beyond IFAB. Calls for better ways to keep them safe, from stricter rules on challenges to fewer games to more substitutes, are often met with jeers and a focus back on the profit motive. If the dignified rules aren’t going to pay the players much respect, why shouldn’t they dive? It’s a two way street. Football treats the players dishonestly every second of every day. Until we all have institutions in the sport we can trust and feel represented by, we can’t talk about showing the game its proper respect.
But it’s the next argument where I think the heart of the disagreement really lies.
“Diving is inherently dishonest. As discussed, there’s a lot of grey area, and players are only making semi-conscious decisions, but it is what it is. Most other types of fouling are not dishonest: as much as I dislike tactical fouls for being lazy and breaking the flow of the game, they’re not exactly hiding what they are.”
Mark points toward various other instances of dishonesty towards referees in football, but argues that there’s a degree of separation between those relatively minor incidents and diving. But I do think this bypasses a more fundamental point, albeit a thornier one to unpack: football is a game of deceit.
What’s the most famous moment of breaking the rules in the history of football? That’s easy: Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”. (Shameless plug: I may have written an in-depth review of his performances on the paid side.) So when he says football is a game of deceit, there’s at least something to it. Everyone accepts so much of what made Maradona, and many of football’s “maverick” players, is about deceiving opponents. You send a defender the wrong way to dribble past them here, play a disguised pass there, etc etc. But where I’m sure those who hate diving would disagree with him is with the notion that deceiving the referee is the same thing as doing it to other players.
It comes back to this notion of trust and authority. The referee is at least supposed to be a neutral arbiter, applying the rules fairly and handling the disputes. They do not make the rules, but they do enforce them. When a player attempts to dive, they are repositioning the role of the referee not as a bystander, but as an active participant in the game. If you don’t like diving, I imagine you strongly object to this notion. It’s recontextualising the game as something it isn’t, taking the focus away from the actual conflict between the two football sides. But I think that assumes a level of trust in a neutral arbiter that has to be earned rather than bestowed. In almost every sphere of society, the referees are being challenged on their authority right now. It’s no longer taken as a given that the rules as they are constituted are fair and just, nor does it seem to be assumed that the referees are always applying them accurately. They’re in the game, just as Maradona and Peter Shilton are. Perhaps one day, we can build a world of football where all voices are properly represented in the decision making process, and where referees can earn back some of the respect that has gradually fallen away from the game.
But until we get there, I’m not going to blame a single player for diving.