Diving witch hunt detracts from real problems

By Paul Gardner

Arsenal's Eduardo got on to the field in the 79th minute of Saturday's game against Manchester United. His entry was greeted by shouts of "Cheat!" from the Man U fans, and Eduardo was duly booed each time he played the ball.

Certainly, not all the Man U fans behaved like morons, but enough did to make themselves heard. What made Eduardo stink in the nostrils of the less delectable Man U fans was the accusation that he had dived in a game against Glasgow Celtic earlier in the week, and had won an undeserved penalty.

An event that, obviously, has nothing to do with Man U. But such has been the ferocity with which the English press has seized the accusation, that Eduardo now plays soccer rather like David Copperfield attended school -- with a sign around his neck. Copperfield's read "He bites!" Eduardo's reads "He cheats!"

Is this in any way justified? Of course not. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger -- even while admitting that he is uncertain whether or not the referee made the correct call -- has spoken out strongly against the victimization of Eduardo. This now includes an official UEFA investigation of the incident, with the possibility that Eduardo will be slapped with a two-game ban.

As to the incident. I have seen three different replays, courtesy YouTube. I find all three utterly inconclusive. Perhaps only one thing is clear -- the Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc never got anywhere near the ball. Was there contact between the two players? Possibly. Or possibly not.

It is decidedly odd that this incident -- which had no bearing on the result of the game, Celtic was outclassed by Arsenal anyway -- has caused such a stir. Wenger's point -- a strong one -- is that there is no reason for UEFA to investigate. If they probe this referee call, then there are dozens of others, more controversial, that they should also look into every week.

Wenger is supported by the referee -- the Spaniard Manuel Gonzalez -- who is not backing down, and is standing by his call of a penalty kick, a call, he stresses, that was confirmed by his linesman.

Things get odder still. The Celtic coach, Tony Mowbray, did not make a big deal of the incident after the game. But then Mowbray is English, and it seems to be Scottish blood that is boiling over this incident. OK, a Scottish team is involved, but it is from higher up -- from Gordon Smith, the chief executive at the Scottish FA that the loudest -- and the silliest -- protests have come.

Smith, it seems, is a longtime campaigner for Fair Play. His efforts, he tells us, have not been appreciated: "Since I came into this post, I have raised the issue of simulation time and time again -- both here in Scotland and with FIFA and UEFA. I don't think that I have received enough support in my efforts to eradicate what I believe to be one of the most serious threats to the integrity of football."

Right. So much more serious than the vicious elbows and the thuggish tackles that adorn every game, to say nothing of the now-routine midfield play-breaking fouls. Gordon Smith's priorities are quite staggering.

But the Scottish connection continues. Wenger has noted that the case then passed to UEFA, where the CEO is a Scot, David Taylor. Promptly UEFA decided to investigate -- even though the referee had himself made no complaint.

Wenger has used the word "witch hunt" to describe the singling out of Eduardo, and he is right. I used the word myself, some months back, when talking about the overall and over-heated campaign against divers in general.

Smith's self-righteous rant against divers didn't look quite so good yesterday when Aiden McGeady -- a Celtic player, no less -- was red-carded for diving. I've seen no comment from Smith on this one, but the response to this call was very different from what assailed Eduardo. The Celtic players condemned the call as ridiculous, and the opposing coach, John Hughes of Hibernians, said "Even if he did take a dive, is it not just a case of saying 'let's get on with it'? Where's the common sense?"

We shall know soon enough, and it does not look as though it will be coming from UEFA. Any more than, so far, it has come from the Scots.

There are a couple of extra items that are of interest. UEFA has had some experience in banning players for "trying to deceive the referee." It has done it once before, in 2007, when it used video evidence to suspend Lithuanian Saulius Mikoliunas for two matches for diving to win a penalty in a European Championship qualifying match. A match against Scotland, as it happened.

There is also some possibly relevant background on Manuel Gonzalez, who refereed the Arsenal vs. Celtic game. Gonzalez was also the referee, in November 2007, of a crucial Euro 08 qualifier between Italy and -- yes -- Scotland. Gonzalez awarded Italy a dubious free kick right at the end of the game -- it led to the winning goal for Italy. Which meant Scotland was out of Euro 08 -- its fifth straight failure to qualify for a major tournament.

A Scottish Mafia? Hardly -- and anyway, it was the English press that wasted no time in delivering vitriolic attacks on Eduardo. For those convinced that anything bad that happens in English soccer is caused by "foreigners," the Eduardo incident came at the right moment. It served as a hyped distraction from the previous day's news -- the re-emergence of English soccer hooliganism at the West Ham vs. Millwall game. No news from Gordon Smith on whether that fracas -- it included one serious stabbing -- might be "a threat to the integrity of football."




2 comments about "Diving witch hunt detracts from real problems".
  1. Kent James, August 31, 2009 at 12:26 p.m.

    Although I usually respect Paul Gardner's opinions even when I don't agree with them, I cannot understand his support of diving. Yes, leg-breaking tackles are worse because people get physically injured, so I agree with his campaign against that sort of play.. But diving, especially in the penalty area (which is where most of it occurs), is attempting to steal a game without deserving it. You let that happen often enough, yes, the integrity of the game is in doubt.
    On the play in question, there is no doubt Eduardo dove. Yes, Eduardo got to the ball first and touched it away, but when the keeper (already committed to going to ground to block the ball) realized this, he did his best to avoid contact, and perhaps slightly touched Eduardo's right foot. But the key (and the you tube video clearly shows this) is that Eduardo did not go down because the keeper took out his right leg, Eduardo went down because instead of continuing his run by putting his left foot (which was untouched) in front of him as you would normally do (one foot in front of the other...) he left it back, which allowed his body to fall. The arched back and arms thrown out also embellished it (I assume accompanied by him crying out, though I did not hear that), were also part of the dive. Sometimes those are used to embellish fouls (which refs should call anyway, but then they're put in the difficult position of seeming to fall for a dive since the arms outstretched etc. were made up and not caused by the foul). So I don't understand how you can claim the evidence in inconclusive. Diving in the penalty box is no less serious than a defender who handles a ball on the line to prevent a goal; both (assuming they are called properly) are conscious attempts to cheat in order to get (or prevent) a goal. And in a game in which goals are so hard to come by, one goal is often the difference in the outcome.
    Yes, sometimes people who are carded for diving really were fouled. And if there is video evidence to support their claim, those cards should be rescinded. I don't have a problem with the referee on the field giving the benefit of the doubt to the player (if the referee is not sure it was a dive, just don't call the foul, which is what most try to do). Given the speed of the modern professional game, it is hard enough for a referee to have to call fouls when people are doing their best to play by the rules; conscious decisions to cheat must be penalized more severely than any positive result that cheating might gain, and since diving in the box can win a goal, the penalty must be severe so people are not tempted to do so.
    I love Arsenal. I love their skill, the ball movement, their high pressure defense, and I think Arsene Wenger is the best coach in the world. I concur with Gardner that thuggery must be curtailed so that skillful players can play. But dealing with diving does not detract from the efforts to stop thuggery, it supports those efforts. Don't you think that some players who dive are consciously fouled harder when they are fouled because of their diving ("if you're going to go down so easily, next time I'll make sure you have a reason to go down"). More importantly, if there was less diving, referees would be less hesitant call legitimate fouls, because they would not fear being made a fool of for calling something a player made up. And make no mistake, at the highest levels, guys who dive have learned to make it very convincing. The only way to deal with it is retroactively with video evidence.
    I would like to see Paul Gardner support efforts to eliminate diving along with his efforts to get rid of thuggery. It's not the beautiful game if players are rewarded for pretending to be fouled in the box.

  2. Ian Plenderleith, September 1, 2009 at 7:56 a.m.

    Agree completely with Kent. Although Mr. Gardner's columns are usually illuminating, he seems to have a strange blind spot on this issue for someone who so vehemently defends the ideal game as a thing of beauty as played by Brazil circa 1970. It's no solution to answer defensive thuggery by diving - a cheat for a cheat, so to speak. And to draw the parallel between diving and the West Ham v Millwall fan trouble is facile, perniciously implying that Gordon Smith is somehow in favor of fan violence because as chief executive of the Scottish FA he hasn't gone on the record as condemning trouble off-field at an English game as strongly as he condemns cheating. You're just arguing in negatives, and it does you no credit.

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