As Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla honoured us all with a flawless performance of his double twist with pike at the weekend – a demonstration of such exquisite extravagance that even the perennially short-sighted Arsene Wenger was moved to pass comment – the unpalatable issue of diving, or ‘simulation’, or outright cheating depending on your outlook, refuses to retreat from the front-line focus of a sporting nation.
Up until a month ago Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was the only player in history to have cruelly smeared the holier-than-thou image of the EPL by single-handedly introducing the dark arts of skulduggery to an indignant sporting public brought up on a stiff upper lip diet of unquestionable fair-play and righteous decency. Michael Owen, the one-time England international renowned as a gravity-defying bastion of sporting conduct – oh, apart from in FIFA World Cup contests against Argentina….oh, and apart from…. – vociferously defended the integrity of the pre-Suarez EPL himself!
But all I can say is that Suarez must be one hell of a teacher! In the blink of an eye the Uruguayan master has coached a succession of effortless displays from an exclusive band of foreign scoundrels; Spurs’ Gareth Bale – he’s British but very much Welsh when it comes to the media-led dissection of the diving culture – and Spain’s Santi Cazorla being the current occupiers of the naughty step. Lord Vader would crave such an ability to instantly turn wide-eyed innocents to the dark side….
Diving is annoying! It’s embarrassing and often cringeworthy! Self-righteous football fans protest that they would prefer their own players to remain on their feet rather than tumble over a particularly vicious blade of grass….yet ask them the same question when the noble honesty of one of their own has denied their club a crucial 3pts or a Cup Final appearance? Like it or not diving has become a consistent part of the modern game, albeit, as anyone who witnessed the tumbling talents of Man City’s Francis Lee in the 1970’s would acknowledge, it is neither an exclusively 21st Century concept nor one imported from beyond the tranquil shores of the UK. But an incredulous British sporting media, and a merry band of wronged managers – whose own players have NEVER dived – have a particular bee in their bonnet over the perceived increase in ‘simulation’ and are leading calls to introduce sanctions for persistent offenders. As in, punish Luis Suarez and forget the rest!
While an undeniably creditable clean-up mission, the question has to asked as to exactly how to implement such retrospective punishments? What sanction would befit the crime? The current think-tank appear to be advocating a retrospective three-match suspension for anyone – unless they’re English – deemed to have dived in the EPL. So, essentially, you could be hit with the same ban for ‘flopping’ as you would for a two-footed jump tackle that leaves an opponent with a broken leg!?!
Another potential conflict is who would form the panel to debate whether an incident is a dive or not? Any individual would likely have some personal football allegiances; would a former Man Utd player accept that Ashley Young has dived any more than a former Liverpool great would concur that Steven Gerrard had taken an unaided fall? And what actually constitutes a dive? Santi Cazorla’s attempt at the weekend – hurling himself to the floor despite TV evidence suggesting there was absolutely no contact whatsoever from WBA’s Steven Reid – would, to most right-minded people, merit sanction. But Gareth Bale received yellow cards in two successive games after being judged by the referee to have dived yet, despite Bale’s obvious exaggeration, I saw contact, however slight, in both incidents?!? And therein arises another conflict; current regulations state that if a referee has seen an incident and has punished a player during the match with a yellow card it cannot then be viewed retrospectively. So in the example of Bale, would his booking at the time exempt him from any retrospective action, thus potentially saving him from a three-match ban?
And I’ll voice my own personal frustrations surrounding diving here. Firstly managers are all too quick to condemn a dive against their team but all too eager to turn a blind eye to their own ‘artists’. And a manager’s anger is too often directed at the wrong person. WBA’s Steve Clarke rightly voiced his grievances over the Cazorla incident – though conveniently glossed over his defender Johan Olsson’s rather pathetic dive in the Arsenal penalty box during the same game – but directed his fury at referee Mike Jones rather than at Cazorla?!? Why should Jones face such intensive criticism for the ‘heinous crime’ of being deceived by the antics of a cheating player? Earlier in the season Arsene Wenger was passionately advocating a three-match ban for diving yet has decided against admonishing Cazorla, despite the Spaniard’s unrepentant attitude?!? Referees do have to accept responsibility too, but in a different sense to the obvious criticism. It has become the norm for a penalty to be awarded when a player is fouled and hits the deck….but there is nowhere in the Laws of the Game that specifies that a player must be felled in order to have been fouled! Sergio Aguero is one such example; the diminutive Argentine is frequently fouled but is often denied a penalty or free-kick because of his eagerness to stay on his feet. The general reluctance of match officials to award a free-kick or, in particular a penalty, unless a player falls to the floor has cultivated a mentality that you are somehow penalised for honest play and thus your first instinct is to hit the floor.
But my real frustration comes from the perception that diving is solely committed by attacking players in the opposing penalty box or in advanced areas of the field. How often do you see a defender trying to shield the ball out of play – or blatantly obstruct an opponent in my opinion – only to dramatically fall to the floor when the opposing striker outwits them?!? How often do you see a goalkeeper fall under absolute minimal, if any, contact like Norwich’s Mark Bunn did at the weekend to deny Swansea a fully-deserved equalising goal? Those incidents are just as frustrating and annoying as the ones occurring further up the pitch and should be treated in the same manner. IF the authorities are serious about dealing with the culture of diving and feigning injury in the EPL then it needs to be consistently enforced. A dive is a dive, wherever it occurs on the field of play….