Just ten days ago I was taking a decidedly jaundiced look at the Blackburn Rovers' coach Sam Allardyce and what I called his "rather snide criticism" of referees. Big Sam had been implying, without actually saying it, that referees did not really understand the game -- their main fault being that they never played at the pro level.
Well, Allardyce has had a second shot at the refs, and this time he's absolutely smack on target. He says that the refs have it in their power to banish diving. Reading that headline, I thought at once that Allardyce was calling for even more draconian punishment for the divers -- because that's all we ever hear. But this was different.
There is really only one term that describes the current obsession with diving -- it has become a witch hunt. A determination to stamp out something that is a problem more in the minds of the hunters than in reality. If you look for witches, you find them. You want divers? Oh, you'll find them.
Just why divers are singled out as the most pernicious offenders in the sport is beyond any explanation I can supply. Today, when we look at the medieval witch hunts, disbelief is the mildest of our reactions. Sympathy for the victims, of course -- but total disbelief and utter revulsion at the witch hunters. At their arrogant assumption of righteousness and their lack of any human understanding.
You can tone all of that down as far as you like, but the underlying premise -- that of a group of self-righteous men determined to stamp out, at any cost, what they see as willful wrong-doers posing an enormous threat to society -- has a direct parallel to the hunt for divers. Did the witches exist? Possibly -- though not in the lurid manner that they were painted. Do divers exist? Yes -- though not in the numbers you'd think, if you listen to the hunters.
What Allardyce does in his latest comments is to apply common sense and reason -- rather than quasi-religious passion -- to the matter of diving. He makes the case that diving can be seen as a reaction to the failure of referees to do their job -- which is to call fouls. I'm going to quote Allardyce at length because these are sensible words from a man who, in his playing days, was a defender:
"But what about players who are dishing out fouls all the time? I would like to see them being punished, not least because it would mean those on the receiving end would not need to resort to diving. It just strikes me at the moment that when a player stays on his feet, a referee thinks, 'That can't have been a foul, because he's still standing. It doesn't look like a foul to me, so I won't give it.' That's where the frustration creeps in. Players feel they are being denied what is due them and start wondering if there is any point trying to stay on their feet. They inevitably reach the conclusion that, next time there is any contact, they might as well go down."
Having been in many locker rooms and seen plenty of battered and bruised legs - including those of Pele, the damaged legs are always those of attacking players -- I'd say that Allardyce is being too mild with his criticism.
Of course it's the thuggish tacklers who must be punished. Yet they are frequently praised for being "uncompromising" or "taking no prisoners" and all the other witless machoterms used to describe players who can't really play. The thugs cause injuries, often serious injuries; they repeatedly break the rules of the game, and should their fouls be called, insist that they "got the ball." Is this not also a form -- a physically dangerous form -- of cheating, the very crime that seems to be the divers' greatest heresy?
But it's the supposed divers -- who never yet caused an injury -- who get pilloried, if not quite burnt at the stake. By all means, go after the divers -- but first of all eradicate, rather than encourage, the mayhem that provokes the diving.