By Paul Gardner
At last, we have some honest down-to-earth talk about diving. From England -- which is important because it is the English who have created the Great Diving Menace, who have managed to stifle any attempt at a serious discussion by clothing the subject in an aura of religious rectitude. We are supposed to understand that we are dealing here with a moralissue, that the players who dive are cheatsand are therefore to be punished. And despised.
When such righteous indignation flares, you can be sure that zealotry -- in a good cause, of course -- will follow. And so we have a campaign against diving, a clamp-down against diving, all of it fueled by sanctimonious statements from soccer leaders, and comments of profound ignorance from people who should know better -- namely the TV commentators, nearly all of whom are ex-players.
What relentlessly follows is a witch hunt.
And, as far as diving is concerned, that is where we are now. Witch hunts, the product of ignorance and bigotry, benefit no one. The guilty are difficult to define, even more difficult to find. So the innocent become likely victims. I don’t think denying the charge of being a witch ever proved very successful, and it is the same for the alleged divers. Indeed, a player who denies that he has dived is usually seen as compounding his crime. He is a liar as well.
As the accusations fly, they create an unhealthy atmosphere of widespread suspicion. Who can be trusted? Trusted not to be a witch, or in the soccer case, not to be a diver?
Think back -- maybe 10 years, probably less. Who was talking about diving then? Barely a soul. But now, it is safe to say, the topic is mentioned and mulled over in every telecast. The phrase “he went down too easily” and its several variants clutter the comments of the experts. Especially is this true of the Brit commentators. But the Americans are not far behind.
Perhaps the American commentators -- not to mention American referees -- will have read about the recent discussion in England over a player who was clearly fouled in the opponent’s penalty area -- but stayed on his feet. With the result that the referee took no action. No penalty kick.
The player was West Ham’s Matt Jarvis. He was tackled by Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna. The comments of the opposing coaches are revealing. For Arsenal, Arsene Wenger was almost conciliatory, not willing to adopt the usual “of course it wasn’t a penalty” stance (which would have been difficult, given the clear evidence of the replays). I fact, he thanked Jarvis for staying on his feet: “I am grateful for that. I don't think it was a penalty, but he touched him yes.”
West Ham’s Sam Allardyce was decidedly less forgiving: “The fact is that when you stay on your feet referees don't give penalties. A foul is a foul, it doesn't matter whether you go down or stay on your feet. If there is contact, you should go down and make the referee's mind up for him.”
This is almost revolutionary in the debate in England over diving. A top coach acknowledging that his player should have gone to ground. But Allardyce has opened the way for some reality to replace all the moralizing that has surrounded the debate. His lead was quickly followed by former ManU and England defender Gary Neville, now a TV pundit: “He should have gone down. Well done, your team haven't won a game. You can either be an angel and do what Matt Jarvis did and get a pat on the back off his Nan when he goes home tonight, or he can win his team a penalty. The referee won't give it if you don't go down.”
What the comments from Allardyce and Neville underline is the way that the anti-diving zealots have managed to confuse the picture by insisting that there are only two causes for a player to go down -- either he is hit solidly and hard by a defender, or he is diving. Simple as that.
Here are two headlines on stories about the Jarvis incident:
“Jarvis honesty sparks dive row” and “Gary Neville criticizes West Ham's Matt Jarvis for not diving.” But neither Allardyce nor Neville mention diving. They are not saying that Jarvis should have dived. They are both saying that a player should “go down” when fouled. Which is a start at reigning in that absurdly wide definition of “diving,” getting it back to what it should be -- the act of a player going to ground -- or “throwing himself to the ground” is a popular way of putting it -- when he has notbeen fouled, when there has been no contact.
Even slight contact with the feet or legs of a fast moving, dribbling player (who, with his constant and sudden changes of direction, is always likely to be in a state of balance-recovery) will likely cause him to, at least, stumble. The foul must be called. The referee should not be allowed to transform that foul by a defender into a yellow card for the attacker.
Slight contact above the waist is more problematic. A hand lightly on the attacker’s shoulder will not be enough to bring him down. If he does fall, that is a dive and a yellow card.
But my greatly attenuated definition of diving does not suit the anti-diver zealots. To the crime of diving, they have added the ancillary offense of “embellishment”. OK -- in the example I just gave, of minimal contact, the fall is obviously exaggerated, an action that includes both diving and embellishment. But this attempt by the anti-divers to cast their net widely, to label as divers as many players as they can, is almost farcical.
In the Jarvis incident, Wenger diduse the word diving. Still pondering whether West Ham should have had a penalty kick, he mused: “Maybe if he [Jarvis] made a theatrical dive he would have got it.” That seems quite wrong. These days, anything that looks even vaguely theatrical or melodramatic is more than likely to be judged as embellishment.
Unless the anti-divers are prepared to issue a instruction booklet on “How to Fall Down without Embellishment,” how can such a thing be accurately judged by a referee?
My sympathies in disputes between players and referees over the rules are usually with the referees. But not in this case. Because the referees have been one of the main instruments in the growth of the diving witch hunt.
Possibly they feel that diving is not just another foul, but is rather chicanery used to make a fool of the referee. Maybe. Whatever, they have been very quick to show solidarity with the witch hunt by issuing yellow cards -- most of them simply wrong, or highly dubious. There remains, too, the suspicion that referees may use a diving call to avoid giving a penalty kick.
But, thanks to Allardyce and Neville, the atmosphere of moralizing mystification that surrounds this greatly inflated matter of diving, that has created the myth of the Great Diving Menace, may at last be clearing, so that we can get a clearer look at what is really involved.
I don’t think anyone -- certainly not I -- is saying that diving does not happen. But we are saying that it is a much less frequent occurrence than the current -- mostly British -- alarmists would have us believe. And that the witch-hunt atmosphere that their alarm has created is doing far more harm than good.
Back to Gary Neville and his opinion that Matt Jarvis should have gone down: “I suppose in some ways people can say 'It's disappointing to hear you say that Gary' -- well then, be disappointed, because ultimately that's the game."