By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- There is, evidently, to be no end to the sheer nonsense that the English witch hunt on diving continues to spew forth.
The head witch, at the moment, is Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, guilty of unspeakable offenses that would seem to threaten the very existence of the sport itself.
You think I exaggerate? Hear ye, these are the recent words of a top FIFA honcho: “I watched the latest Suarez incident two or three times, and to me it is nothing less than a form of cheating ... It is becoming a little bit of a cancer within the game [which] should be severely punished.”
Cancer, mind you. Hardly a word to be used lightly. Yes, the words are those of FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce. Does it need saying that Boyce is a Brit? From Northern Ireland. His unpleasant slurs on Suarez duly arrived at the office of the Uruguayan soccer federation. They felt obliged to respond, complaining that Boyce’s comments were, at least, a contravention of FIFA’s Code of Ethics, and requesting that Boyce’s conduct should be investigated.
So onward and upward, this absurd quibble spins. And the Brits keep getting themselves in trouble. Even the most experienced Brit of the lot, Alex Ferguson. Having declared that most divers were foreigners, Ferguson had to quickly modify that with “except Nani and Ronaldo,” who have both been accused (by the Brits, of course) of diving. And who both happen to play, or to have played, for ManU. And now, after Boyce’s foot-in-mouth episode, we have Michael Owen -- capped 89 times for England, once the golden boy of English soccer -- getting himself into a hopeless tangle with his diving comments.
On Wednesday, Owen stated that, for the penalties he got against Argentina in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, he went down when he could have stayed on his feet. That sounds like diving, but when a newspaper headline quoted him as saying “I dived to win a penalty," Owen shot back that it was a “disgraceful” twist on his views. He then went into an agonizing attempt to explain the difference between “honest” dives, and devious dives.
No doubt there will be plenty more of this rubbish to follow. But the former -- and much admired -- Italian referee Pierluigi Collina has cut right through most of the verbal thickets with this: “If touched and fouled a player has every right to go to ground.”
But not in England, it seems -- where the mood is determined to turn this into a moral issue, with the shining, spotless Brits against the rest of the world -- or at least the Latin part of it whence come, according to both Ferguson and Owen -- the devious divers.
Leading the English charge is a Welshman, the ridiculous Tony Pulis, coach of Stoke City, a team thoroughly well known (and, in England, admired) for its crudeness and its roughness. Pulis is another of those entangled in his own contradictions -- having asserted in 2009 that it would be “ridiculous” to start a campaign against diving in the middle of a season -- such a move must be made at the start of the season. But that was then. Right now, Pulis is looking for a war on diving to begin immediately nearly eight weeks into the season.
At an event not unconnected with all this Brit primitiveness, this week has seen the opening of England’s first national soccer center. St. George’s Park is a $160 million complex of fields and state-of-the-art facilities located in the English midlands. Nothing primitive here, for sure.
But the euphoria accompanying its inauguration included a hefty dose of what is clearly nothing more than wishful thinking. In fact, just plain illusion. Is there any evidence, from anywhere, that money -- here manifested in a luxury academy -- automatically produces better players? Not that I’m aware of.
Yet David Sheepshanks, the man behind the complex, says it will help England to win a World Cup -- citing 2020 as the likely date when its influence will kick in. Possibly, but much more probably, not. One of the aims of the center will be to increase the number of coaches in England. Coaches with badges and licenses and diplomas, that is. At the moment, England is way behind the rest of Europe in that department.
Another false assumption, I fear. Having more coaches is no guarantee for anything. Having better coaches is another matter -- but how on earth does one define better? The Spanish seem to have done that rather well. But would Spanish-style coaches be accepted in England? Or would they simply be laughed back to Barcelona?
English-style coaching -- and we’ve seen more than enough of it in the USA -- is frankly deplorable, bordering on pathetic. Unless there is a huge change in the English coaching community -- and for that matter in what the average English fan finds enjoyable in the game -- then the lush facilities of St. George’s Park are doomed to do nothing more than make a bad situation worse.
What sort of change am I talking about? For a start, a realization that soccer is not all about crunching tackles and getting stuck in and high work rate. That it is not all about people trying to score by getting on the end of crosses. That there are subtleties and artistry that can -- and need to -- be brought into the sport.
Making that point superbly, there is an astonishingly revealing statement from Spain’s Xavi Alonso, who spent five years with Liverpool. It is quoted in the book “I Am the Secret Footballer” (written by The Guardian’s anonymous “secret footballer” columnist). Thus Alonso: “I don’t think tackling is a quality. At Liverpool I used to read the match day program and you’d read an interview with a boy from the youth team. They’d ask: age, heroes, strong points etc. He’d reply ‘Shooting and tackling.’ I can’t get it into my head that soccer development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand soccer in those terms. Tackling is a resort and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition.”
But in England, it most definitely is. And if it’s also a sliding tackle, so much the better. Alonso’s final thought on the topic: “It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English soccer culture.”
But without such a fundamental change, any development program for English players is flawed before it even starts. I think it is precisely that deeply rooted desire for hard (but fair of course, oh yes, always fair) tackling that accounts for much of the uproar in England over diving. There is a quite remarkable aspect of the furore ... that the actions, even the intentions, of the tacklers are never discussed. There is an assumption, always, that the tackler has done nothing wrong.
So we have the situation that occurred a week or two back when Chelsea’s Oscar (a Brazilian foreigner) went down under a challenge from one of Pulis’s Stoke monsters, the 6-foot-3 Ryan Shawcross. In a conflict between the young Oscar, just beginning his career in England, and the veteran Shawcross, a player with a formidable record of sending opponents to the hospital ... why on earth would it be assumed, from the start, that Shawcross was sublimely innocent of any wrongdoing?
Apart from anything else, the replays do not support such a conclusion. But replays tend to deal in subtleties; if there has been massive, crunching contact, who needs the replay? In such cases, the likelihood is that the referees -- accurately reflecting the English attitude -- will judge that the ball was played and the tackle was clean. But where contact was less than crunching, where a replay has to be studied to see it, the Brits will invariably see “no contact.” FIFA’s Boyce, for instance, tells us that he watched “the latest Suarez incident two or three times” and has decided that Suarez was cheating -- i.e. no contact.
Well, I’ve watched that incident about 10 times - probably the same replays as Boyce -- and I certainly cannot come up with a statement -- either for or against contact - with anything like the certainty that Boyce displays. Even he should surely be able to see that there is a moment there when there might well have been contact. Not crunching contact, of course, but enough to throw Suarez -- who was in the middle of a mazy dribble -- off-balance. Referee Lee Mason allowed play to continue. Was that the right call? As a compromise between booking Suarez and giving him a PK, it was at least diplomatic.
But Mason was absurdly lenient with Stoke defender Robert Huth on other occasions. Only six minutes or so into the game, Huth wrestled Suarez to the ground, and then stomped on his chest. Or, as the English papers had it, “appeared to stamp” on Suarez. This time the replays leave no doubt -- this was a blatant red-card offense, unpunished by Mason, who later ignored Huth’s wildly crunching tackle (that’s the stuff, lads!) on Suarez.
It was, of course, the Stoke coach Pulis who made such a fuss about the Suarez incident, thereby deflecting attention from his own player’s thuggery. Pulis, surprise, surprise, was a defender in his playing days, though not one that anyone remembers. He enjoys watching players clatter into each other, that’s the way this game should be played, by Jove - “There was a challenge in the first half when [Liverpool’s] Glen Johnson and Jonathan Walters both went up for a header, it was a real full-blooded challenge and I thought Glen did absolutely fantastic to bounce back up and get on with it. I went over to him and said 'well done.'"
Oh well, that’s all right then, it earned praise from Pulis. Johnson, of course, is English. But so, rather awkwardly for Pulis, is Stoke’s Michael Owen, who has backed Pulis’ obvious animosity toward foreigners, but at the same time has admitted that he takes dives. Honest dives, of course. No doubt we shall soon be hearing from the righteous Pulis on the propriety of the honest (read “English”) dive.