Of all the acuities of all the emotions football can elicit from its devotees, there are few more infuriating than an opponent diving to win a penalty against your team.
Normal, composed, even occasionally productive members of society are hitherto transformed into rabid, foaming monstrosities, bellowing expletives like a drunk with a megaphone at a beach party frantically trying to organise a conga line. It is a wretched sight for anybody to witness and certainly an argument against bringing children to football matches. Pity the 10-year-old boy who witnesses his father lose the plot as though it were a Thomas Pynchon novel; for he knows not what he will become.
But what if the dive comes from your team? What if it wins the penalty that wins the game that wins the title? Does that elicit the same reaction? No, quite the opposite—there's a perverse enjoyment in seeing a player cheat to win a game for your team, whether you admit it or not. Enjoyment admittedly interspersed with pangs of guilt, whiffs of distaste that punctuate the air punching and animalistic shrieking, but deep down that's only your conscience talking; your stupid, moralistic conscience that doesn't know squat about football anyway.
All of which makes for a curious introduction to an entry about diving. Rarely is the hypocrisy of football more evident than when diving is concerned: Depending on whether one's team is victim or perpetrator, the act is either a disgraceful act of Stalin-esque heinousness or a knowledge and exploitation of the rules of football, so cunning it would wring tears of pride from MacGyver. When you're a fan, winning is everything, right? The performance might've been poor, but it's the three points that count at the end of the day. The end justifies the means. The destination is far more important than the journey. The game is not a matter of life and death, but it's far more important than that. There is no middle ground.
Actually, that's not true at all. From a non-partisan point of view, diving is wrong. It's blatant cheating, far too many players do it, and it's a cancer that comes uncomfortably close to ruining the game. According to a recent BBC article, as many as 97 per cent of football "injuries" may be classed as "dives," if you think of diving as "exaggerating the extent of an injury."
And there are many voices willing to call players out whenever a dive is committed—just ask Twitter.
But all this indignation is meaningless, because as soon as bias comes into the equation, objectivity goes out the window. If your team is playing, a dive that wins a penalty becomes gamesmanship; a professional doing what he has to do in order to achieve what he is paid outlandish sums of money to achieve—that’s how we should view diving, because that’s how the players view it.
At the levels at which the players that we follow play, winning—as Gary Neville says—is everything. Integrity, self-respect, even honesty—it all goes out the window when the players get onto the field. This is the reason that you’ll rarely hear a player apologising for diving; it’s the reason Luis Suarez and Diego Maradona never said sorry for the blatant handballs that dishonestly knocked Ghana and England out of World Cups. We might want to believe players have a conscience and elevate football to similar idealistic planes that we do, but to them the game is a job; a job in which they are judged by results, and anything that will help them attain those results is fair.
In any case, the standards of honesty we idealistically hope players will maintain are outrageously subjective. Take Fred’s dive against Croatia in the opening game of this year’s World Cup: Nobody denies the Brazilian makes the most of the contact he receives, but if a free kick were given for this on the halfway line, would there be such uproar? If not, why not? A dive is a dive is a dive, just as a foul is a foul is a foul, right? Does the location of the foul matter? Are there different levels of fouls: penalty-area fouls and the rest?
Look, don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of diving. I don’t sponsor the idea. But realistically, it’s always going to be a part of the game. As long as human error is possible in the adjudication of football matches, players will attempt to capitalise on that human error to gain an advantage. There are no two ways about it.
The only way football could stamp out all diving is to send off or, more likely, show yellow cards in every single case of a player going to ground without contact—which discounts the possibility that a player might go to ground because he is off balance, or because of momentum, or simply because he’s disappointed with how a situation turned out.
Alternatively, retrospective video replays could be utilised in a manner similar to the “report” system in rugby league, whereby any suspicious fall is referred to an independent panel who examine the footage after the game and issue a retrospective punishment—perhaps a one-game suspension for the first instance of flagrant diving and subsequent increases for recurrences. There would likely be an initial boom of players suspended, but the tough love would likely have an impact over the long term.
At the moment, however, there is little use in getting fired up over diving. It is cheating, but generally it’s a very subtle way of cheating that only becomes obvious under intense, slow-motion scrutiny. A better place to start would be with the referees, who are charged with deciding what is and what isn’t a dive, and why—if dives are so prevalent (as we know they are) more yellow cards for “simulation” aren’t handed out. Only one yellow card was issued for diving in the entirety of the 2014 World Cup; from August 2008 to January 2014, a mere 125 yellow cards were issued for diving, despite more than 1,900 matches being played.
The ambiguity and subjectivity of the rules of football, and the fallibility of the men who enforce them, means that a world without diving is a utopic ideal, equivalent to a world where nobody steals, nobody lies and nobody exploits. That’s not our world. Nor, in all likelihood, will it ever be.