Diving calls and other biases

By Paul Gardner

A look at three recent episodes that starkly reveal the problems created by pre-judgment. Which is a fancy word for bias.

* June 16, 2012: Euro 2012, Greece 1 Russia 0, 62nd minute. Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson doles out a yellow card to Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis for diving. A terrible decision. The replays show a clear trip by Russian defender Sergei, therefore a penalty kick to Greece. What was Eriksson thinking? He could not have seen that Karagounis was diving, since that is not what happened.

Because Eriksson was looking at the incident from behind Ignashevich his view of the contact was blocked. This is not a criticism of Eriksson -- we cannot expect referees to always be ideally placed. What we have a right to expect, though, is that referees will not invent calls that they have not seen. But that is what Eriksson did.

Why? Possibly because Eriksson, along with many referees these days, was actively looking for evidence of diving. And possibly because, along with that bias, there is the unfortunate suspicion that the dive was called as cover for Eriksson not doing what he should have done -- i.e. calling a penalty kick.

Eriksson got it totally wrong. He failed to penalize Russia with a penalty kick. And he punished Karagounis, the innocent party, with a yellow - which tarred Karagounis as a cheat, and meant that Karagounis had to sit out the vital quarterfinal against Germany. One might think that sportsmanship, or just common courtesy, would tell Eriksson he owes Karagounis an apology. But Eriksson has not been heard from.

* July 4, 2012: MLS, Seattle Sounders 0 Real Salt Lake 0, 49th minute. This time we did -- eventually -- get an apology. It came from TV analyst Kasey Keller, who had made an awful hash of his original assessment of a tackle by Seattle’s Brad Evans on Javier Morales. Listen to Keller, as his voice rises with indignation: “There was no contact. There was two yards distance between them [as Morales went down]. If you’ve ever seen a call for the board to look at someone simulating a foul, it’s right there.”

In other words, Morales -- who last season suffered a broken ankle that sidelined him for five months -- took a blatant dive, and referee Hilario Grajeda bought it and gave RSL a free kick. We all watched the same replay as Keller and surely, we all saw Evans jab his leg dangerously at Morales. There was no “two yards” of separation. But there was the clear possibility of rather nasty contact. Keller’s version was simply inexplicable.

Twenty minutes later, Keller returned to the theme, offering an apology to Morales, saying there had been contact -- and basing his revised opinion on the same replay we, and he, had watched earlier. Contact indeed -- a hefty stamp on Morales’s ankle.

How could Keller get it so completely wrong? Once again, the only explanation is pre-judgement. That Keller was actively looking for a dive -- and he found one, even though the evidence wasn’t even close to supporting such an opinion.

* July 22, 2012: Exhibition game, Chelsea 1 Paris Saint-Germain 1, 9th minute. PSG’s Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, the ball under control, outpaces Chelsea defender Gary Cahill and approaches the Chelsea penalty area. Out comes goalkeeper Petr Cech to make a sliding tackle on Lavezzi -- just outside the area. Down goes Lavezzi -- and up comes referee Edvin Jurisevic to give him a yellow for diving.

The call was highly questionable - for the same reason that Eriksson’s call in #1 above was doubtful. Because Jurisevic did not have a clear view of Cech’s “tackle.” But the interesting thing here is the reaction of the TV commentator Warren Barton. His first comment, slightly delayed, was “Well done the referee!” Followed quickly by an arrogant “There’s no contact” at the very moment when the replay was showing -- but certainly not proving -- that there might well have been contact.

Barton then attempted to justify his snap opinion by pointing out that goalkeeper Cech is “not gonna come out and make a rash tackle.” The stupidity of that remark, when we had all just seen a replay showing Cech doing exactly that, is hard to credit.

Barton, with all his experience as a defender, must know that when goalkeepers try to make sliding tackles, the chances of a foul are high. In assessing such a tackle, one of the first things that usually gets noted (though not by Barton) is whether or not the goalkeeper got the ball. In this case, Cech was nowhere near the ball, never touched it, because Lavezzi had moved it away from him as he continued his dribble. At that point, Cech’s legs slid right across Lavezzi’s path. Either Lavezzi could stay on the ground and risk injury from Cech’s late tackle, or he could jump and try to avoid contact. Lavezzi jumped. Did he entirely clear Cech’s left leg, or was there contact -- not massive contact, but enough to unbalance Lavezzi as he hit the ground?

Barton’s offensive certainty was not soundly based. So why was he so sure of himself? Yet again, this is a case of finding what you’re actively looking for, seeing what isn’t there.

Worse -- in Barton’s case there is a strong suspicion of pro-Chelsea bias. Barton went on and on about the iniquity of Lavezzi as a diver, apparently shocked that the crime he had invented for Lavezzi should occur “Even in a game like this ...” But how odd that, in all this castigation of Lavezzi, Barton could not once mention the guy’s name. Barton informed us “That’s not what we want to see from him ...” which left me wondering what Barton did want to see from him, or indeed from PSG.

Not much. PSG seemed not to matter to Barton. PSG’s goal was barely noticed by Barton. He yakked merrily away during the entire buildup -- talking vacuously about Chelsea -- until JP Dellacamera had to break in as Javier Pastore’s shot hit the post, and Nene netted the rebound. All the clever work on the goal, very neat close ball-control, was done by Javier Pastore. Yet Barton’s first comment was “Chelsea will be disappointed. You’ve gotta defend better -- there’s gotta be better defending there. It’s a sloppy goal for Chelsea.”

Having earlier avoided all mention of Lavezzi, Barton now managed a wildly biased critique of the PSG goal without once mentioning Pastore. And so it went. Late in the game Pastore had two shots that brought good saves from goalkeeper Ross Turnbull. Barton maintained his silence on Pastore, being more interested in Turnbull’s goalkeeping technique.

As the game ended, Barton was yet again emphasizing that PSG’s goal was “A sloppy goal, very much a preseason goal [for Chelsea] to give away.” Pastore was the only player, from either team, who played the full 90 minutes. He barely got a mention from Barton. At the end of the game, the microphone switched to Eric Wynalda who immediately said “I was very impressed with Pastore tonight ...”

The London Daily Mail, which might be expected to show some leaning toward Chelsea, commenting on the diving incident, reported that Lavezzi “looked to be tripped by Cech,” and had this to say about the player so assiduously ignored by Barton: “the impressive Pastore hit the post after a bewildering jinxing run in the Chelsea area.”

Bias abounds in this incident. Referee Jurisevic’s contentious diving call could only have been made by someone looking for diving; Barton’s unquestioning support for the call could only come from someone with an anti-diving obsession. Barton’s game-long insistence on seeing things from the Chelsea angle led to an incomplete “analysis” of the game -- not necessarily always pro-Chelsea, but repeatedly explaining incidents in terms of what Chelsea was doing -- either rightly or wrongly.

Fox, should it want to, could immediately solve the television bias, I suppose, by limiting Barton to EPL games where he does pretty well. The referee bias on diving calls is more worrying.

I believe most of these calls to be either flat out wrong, or so doubtful that they should not have been be made. They involve a deplorable referee mindset that, at the moment, is being encouraged by FIFA and the other high soccer authorities: When in doubt, call the dive.

10 comments about "Diving calls and other biases".
  1. Jay Wilson, July 25, 2012 at 4:14 a.m.

    This article is strong evidence for the need to add a second referee at the very least. But also in a sport where the most common score line is 1-0, FIFA absolutely needs to consider instant replay. And please don't throw back tha old saw about replay holding up the game. There are far more instances of players rolling around on the grass after fouls eating up the clock. Plus, the referee can always add time. Replay would help minimize the impact the the referee now has on game outcomes by helping to get critical calls right.

  2. Charles O'Cain, July 25, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.

    Where's the outrage over "fouls won" and "penalties won" by what replays clearly demonstrate to be "simulation" (I prefer to call it cheating)? The number of yellow cards given falsely for diving is minuscule by comparison. Why this "bias"?

  3. Brian Something, July 25, 2012 at 9:13 a.m.

    On scuffles in the box, the outrage against one form of cheating (shirt/arm grabbing) pales in comparison to the outrage against another form of cheating (diving). The two are Siamese-twins, but only one provokes calls for offenders to be tarred and feathered. I guess I don’t get the nuance between “honorable” and “dishonorable” cheating.

  4. Dustin Randall, July 25, 2012 at 11:04 a.m.

    So this article is clearly written by an author who likes diving in the game. The Chelsea vs PSG call was a good call, clearly a dive, and not much argument by Lavezzi to confirm this. Diving induced whistles are surely a much bigger problem than errors on simulation calls and I applaude the refs for trying to enforce this to try to purge diving from the game.

  5. Dustin Randall, July 25, 2012 at 11:10 a.m.

    @ Brian F - the nuance between these two lies in the fact that one form more often than not involves a player rolling around on the field acting like they broke their leg. The result most the time is stopping the game to check on them...but everyone knows that they are just fine. I would call that a bit more dishonorable than tugging a jersey.

  6. Kent James, July 25, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    Charles is right. Paul's bias is showing (if you're predisposed to see referees getting cards wrong for diving, that's what you find when you look). And Brian F, I agree that shirt grabbing should also be eliminated, since there is never a reason to grab someone's shirt unless you are trying to cheat (and it is pretty easy to identify). Neither shirt grabbing or diving is honorable, and both should be eliminated.

  7. Ramon Creager, July 25, 2012 at 3:57 p.m.

    I agree with Brian F. One of the instigators of diving is that players who try to fight through all those honorable bad tackles and shirt pulls aren't rewarded with foul calls. So at the least contact, they go down to try to get that call. In the recent Euros I was amazed at some of the blatant shirt pulling in the box. Every one I saw was rewarded by a non-call. The fear of making a game-changing call results in blatant bias towards defenders. As far as TV commentators like Barton who cannot keep their biases in check, this is inexcusable. Surely TV networks can find commentators who love the game--rather than just one team, or one league--and are willing to do it justice?

  8. Brian Something, July 27, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

    Dustin, you can rationalize if you want but to me, and to the Laws of the Game, both diving and shirt grabbing are CHEATING. I don’t view one as any worse than the other. In fact, unpunished shirt grabbing is the biggest single reason players dive. How can you tell a forward not to cheat when you’re making excuses for the defender “marking” him cheating?

    If I grab your shirt and you try to stay on your feet, you won’t get the call. My cheating will be rewarded and your honesty will be punished. Eventually, you will decide that your honesty is hurting you because of my cheating. You won’t see your cheating as gaining an advantage, just as evening things out.

    If I grab your shirt and you go to ground easily, you’re getting the call that you should have gotten because you really were fouled. That’s how forwards think.

    If you really want to eliminate diving, and I do, then you have to stop seeing it in a vacuum. If referees started calling real fouls even when players didn’t go to ground, they would see an incentive in staying on their feet because via the advantage call, they might get a scoring chance and if they don’t, then the legitimate foul on them will be called anyways. They will have no reason to dive.

    But as long as you bury your head in the sand and see defenders cheating and forwards cheating as completely unrelated, nothing will change.

  9. Kent James, July 30, 2012 at 12:29 p.m.

    Brian F, I couldn't agree more. Shirt pulling is always conscious (unless they've done it so much that it's become an unconscious act) and is never part of a legitimate play. Some people seem to think that a little shirt pulling between friends should be tolerated (because it's a man's game and men can't help but try and cheat?). Conscious attempts to cheat (as opposed to misjudgments or physical mistakes) should be punished with cards, so that people making those conscious decisions realize that the penalty for cheating is greater than any potential gain. Without such punishments, what is the disincentive not to try it? There are enough accidental fouls that must be dealt with during the course of a game; getting rid of intentional fouls and misconduct should be a high priority for referees.

  10. Charles O'Cain, July 31, 2012 at 8:55 a.m.

    Shirt pulling is not infrequently the tactic of the offensive player as well, particularly when "back-to-goal" to unbalance the defender and allow the turn. It is often very difficult for the official to detect while trailing the play. Perhaps jerseys should be made of a flimsier material, allowing rips and holes to stand in witness to the transgression. Normal legal play would rarely if ever cause shear forces sufficient to disrupt the garment, but a tug causing problems for the victim would. I'm also in favor of the "disappearing chalk" spray used in some South American matches to mark the 10-yard distance from the free kick spot. No more "negotiating" with the wall, and easy to spot (and punish) the cheaters.

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