Some like it rough: Tales from the birthplace of soccer

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- Spending time among the English nowadays -- talking soccer, watching EPL games, reading the sports pages, listening to the army of TV experts, discussing the sport with fans -- always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that I have been mingling with people who really don't care that much about the sport.

I’m not talking only -- or even primarily -- of the fans. It has always been pretty clear that diehard fans will put the interests of their club -- i.e. winning -- above all else. In England that attitude always seems to boil down to the necessity of forgetting about playing decent soccer. Of the 20 club coaches in the Premier League, there are two who stand out as proponents of the “doesn’t-matter-how-you-play-as-long-as-you-win” school: Sam Allardyce, the Englishman in charge at West Ham United, and Tony Pulis, the Welshman at Stoke.

Allardyce has his team currently in sixth place in the EPL, playing a style of soccer I’ll charitably describe as archaic. But he’s good with his put-downs is Big Sam -- “Contrary to what any media say, fans at West Ham are interested in the passion of the player and the commitment of the player, rather than all that pretty football stuff.”

Strong stuff that, given that West Ham has a long tradition of playing stylish soccer, and is often referred to as “The Academy.”

Is Allardyce right, I wonder -- not just for the Hammers’ fans, but for English fans in general, for English soccer as a whole? I sat in a pub here recently watching Chelsea beat Arsenal. Amongst a group of Arsenal fans eating and drinking and watching the big screen was one who burst into flames every time Chelsea’s Fernando Torres got the ball, venomously yelling repeatedly “Do ‘im! DO ‘im!” Meaning, I guess, kick him, or at least knock him down. Given that Torres was usually either inside, or just outside, the Arsenal penalty area this seemed suicidal advice.

Maybe not. Maybe the fan knew his English-style refereeing and was confident that no foul would be called. There’s plenty of supporting evidence for that view. The day before the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game, Luis Suarez had been in action for Liverpool against Norwich, had scored a hat trick ... but the action-picture given the most space by the Sunday newspapers showed Suarez being bulldozed -- from behind by Norwich defender Leon Barnett. A full-body assault, that included an elbow to Suarez’s head. No foul, said referee Mike Jones, play on. An insane decision. But one with a history. Suarez has been in England for little more than a year -- but that’s quite long enough for him to have acquired a reputation as a diver. Or for the EPL referees to have created one for him.

Could it be that the reputation was what made Jones make what, one hopes, is the worst call, or non-call, he’s ever made? It could. Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers had already been in touch with EPL referee boss Mike Riley to protest that Suarez is not getting the calls that he should get, while the Liverpool fans have a new chant, “We’re gonna have party, when Suarez gets a penalty.”

So Suarez is a diver and can therefore be fouled with impunity. Much the same thing happened to Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at ManU -- he was damned as a diver -- and he also used too much hair gel, and did too many stepovers.

Do the English really, deep down, like the skillful attacking players? Or do they get more pleasure from persecuting them as purveyors of the dreaded “pretty stuff”? There’s not much fear of encountering the pretty stuff up in Stoke, where Tony Pulis’s oversized team specializes in scrambling in goals from long balls or from set plays. Pretty, no. Ugly yes. And Pulis is one of the real loudmouths when it comes to moaning about diving. He is demanding an automatic three-game suspension for divers, and had harsh words for two Chelsea players whom he recently accused of diving -- Branislav Ivanovic and Oscar.

Both foreigners. Is that by chance? Things get murkier. Suarez and Ronaldo are foreigners, and the accusation is repeatedly made that it is foreign players who have introduced diving, thus corrupting the English game that was, until then, as pure as the driven snow.

Sergio Aguero, the Argentine striker who plays for ManCity, evidently responding to the treatment of Suarez, made some mild comments on the situation. “It happens everywhere,” he said, “there is a little bit of privilege for players who come from the country where you are playing ... but if referees are suspicious of foreign players, that is not good for anyone ... it is not right that some should have a privilege that others don’t.”

Remarks that persuaded the canniest and the most experienced of the British coaches to join in the xenophobia. None other than Alex Ferguson who asserted that “down the years there have been plenty of players diving, and you have to say particularly foreign players.” This was rather awkward for Ferguson, who used to staunchly defend Ronaldo against diving charges, and has recently denied that his Portuguese winger Nani takes dives -- “Nani is not the type to dive, I know that.”

So Nani is not a diver. But Suarez, we are assured, is. The man doing the assuring is the London Times columnist Matthew Syed, who calls Suarez “a bit of a diver.” That, of course, is the famous British understatement. Examples of Suarez diving are “legion” says Syed, adding that Suarez “seems to simulate as part of a career plan.” Syed also makes the extraordinary claim, without adducing any proof at all, that “Suarez has won more dubious penalties than he has failed to win legitimate ones.” Syed’s tediously tendentious column ends up finding Suarez personally guilty of “fueling the cynicism surrounding the game.”

Syed’s sad attack on Suarez could be said to “fuel the cynicism of poor defenders” -- like Barnett and Ryan Shawcross, Stoke’s serial offender who was the “tackler” when Oscar got nailed for diving.

This is not a simple problem to deal with, and it certainly won’t disappear when confronted with Syed’s shallow moralizing. Another thing is that the problem appears to be most virulent in England. Is it such a huge problem elsewhere? It is not. Ronaldo, now playing in Spain, no longer has to put up with constant accusations of cheating.

Back to the matter of the English and skillful soccer. Neither Suarez nor Ronaldo would get a look in on an Allardyce or a Pulis team. When Allardyce wants a forward, he recruits the hulking Andy Carroll whose rustic playing style matches Allardyce’s primitive tactics. Pulis goes for Peter Crouch, at 6-foot-7 the ideal target man for long-ball play.

Is that what the English want, rather then the “pretty stuff”? Maybe it is. England coach Roy Hodgson -- who has all the attributes, both good and bad, of yesterday’s man -- has called up Carroll, and pressure is building for him to include Crouch. It is very hard to think of another national team -- one of any standing, that is -- that would select either player.

Another piece of evidence pointing to England’s rejection of not only skill, but creative artistry as well, is the continued lack in the EPL of top Brazilians. Given the number of key Brazilian players on so many teams from both western and eastern Europe, this needs some explaining. Why is England so obviously out of synch with the rest of Europe?

18 comments about "Some like it rough: Tales from the birthplace of soccer".
  1. Chris Mitchell, October 4, 2012 at 3:50 a.m.

    Suarez is perhaps not the best example to use. Yes, that should have been a nailed-on penalty against Norwich. But he is a perfect example of a player who created a bad reputation for himself which has then come back to bite him. He is a serial diver, or at least an "exaggerator". No ref wants to be made a fool of by giving a penalty to a diving player, so undoubtedly his reputation plays on a ref's mind.

    The perception of "foreign players" diving is incorrect though. While Suarez is pretty bad, there are English players who are far more cynical at trying to win penalties, Ashley Young being the prime example.

  2. R2 Dad, October 4, 2012 at 6:40 a.m.

    I see Shawcross was called up--would love to see this guy get a couple caps to prove why he has no business playing internationally. The PL may find that sort of tackling entertaining but Hodgson should think twice about letting a cowboy run around in the box willy-nilly hacking down attackers. Oh, I forgot--he's Not That Sort of Player. I'm sure the European referees will stand down. While you're at it, Hodgie, give Joey Barton a ring.

  3. David Mont, October 4, 2012 at 9:51 a.m.

    To Chris: I don't quite get it. So, "no ref wants to be made a fool of by giving a penalty to a diving player", but the same ref doesn't mind being made a fool for not giving what everyone in the stadium and on TV saw as a "nailed-on penalty"?

  4. Mike Crump, October 4, 2012 at 10:13 a.m.

    I would say it is safe to say that the EPL is a more physical league than others. Countries and leagues do seems to gravitate to certain styles but I don't see them as a single dominant style. I always struggle with isolated or single observations used to prove a point. These tend to be nothing more than a fallacy with no credibility. Regarding fallacy: Brazil generates a large number of skillful players, EPL statistically has less Brazilian players than other European leagues, therefore the EPL doesn't attract skillful players or have a skillful style or is less skillful than other leagues? It's an argument that while it could be considered probable it has nothing to stand on from a logic standpoint.

    Here is my short sighted observation - we know what Renaldo has said about the EPL vs La Liga. We have all watched RM v Barca. Skillful games? Kind of, but from my perspective I think they tend to have as much thuggery as skill showcased. What does that say about La Liga? The two best teams and I usually walk away not liking the match overall.

    In an attempt to provide food for thought. If the EPL is physical and not skillful wouldn't success in the UCL (where the influence of English refs is extremely marginalized) be near impossible? Effectively England ranks a close second to Spain. Perhaps my own fallacy.

    Regardless, while soccer is a physical sport the EPL as the most popular league does need to ensure that it continues to attract top players, top coaches, fans, and viewers and needs to be aware of it's own shortcomings.

  5. Gus Keri, October 4, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.

    Talk about Suarez' reputation is just nonsense. people are talking about almost 4 correct PKs calls denied for Suarez. On the other hand, the 2 most talked about dives that successfully earned a PK were from Ashley Young and Valencia and both are from Man Utd. Alex Ferguson should be ashamed to clame that only foreign players dive when two of his players, one of them is an English, were envolved. It has been said for many years now that there is a strong bias among the referees favoring Man Utd against all others, especially Liverpool.

  6. Gus Keri, October 4, 2012 at 10:44 a.m.

    If you want to know how SAF manipulate the refereeing body, check this info: .... One day the truth about the refereeing conspiracy will come out, just like it took 23 years for the truth about Hillsborough to come out.

  7. Kyle Fanning, October 4, 2012 at 10:53 a.m.

    Not every EPL team is Stoke or West Ham though. I'd point out that Rodgers unloaded Carroll because he didn't fit his system, which isn't about long balls and bruising strikers. And on the diving: I saw a stat ( article) where I believe 15 of 33 yellow cards for diving in EPL last 3 seasons were issued to Brits.

  8. A douglas Stone, October 4, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.

    Glad someone noticed the horrible non-call - I was shouting at the TV - not just bundled over, but a vicious elbow to the head, directly from behind - Really? Paul, you are really on the right track with this; failing to reward skillful players in the EPL is a problem.

  9. Chris Mitchell, October 5, 2012 at 1:25 a.m.

    @ David:
    A dubious penalty that is given (and is scored from) will definitely be scrutinised by all and sundry, as a goal will show up in the highlights and has an obvious effect on the game via the scoreboard.
    A bad non-call will usually get far less attention after the game itself.
    I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying I think it probably plays on the refs mind.

  10. David Mont, October 5, 2012 at 7:07 a.m.

    All that is a sign of bad refereeing.

  11. Charles O'Cain, October 5, 2012 at 11:01 a.m.

    I'm curious ... has Mr Gardner ever actually SEEN a dive (or would he admit to it)? What about the propensity in Spain for displays of "referred pain", whereby a touch somewhere else on the body causes intense discomfort in the facial region causing the sufferer to fall to the ground and roll around in agony? Is this all part of the Latin skill set he so admires? Cristiano Ronaldo's antics are hardly noticed in La Liga where the competition for diving gold is so intense. To be fair, they ARE much better at it, and the English dive so crudely (think Rooney and Young). There IS admiration in the EPL for the skillful attacker (Henry, Van Persie, again Rooney, Ba, Drogba and even Torres), and Mr Gardner's dismissal of Peter Crouch is more than a little unfair (he scored one of the goals of the year against Man City; imagine how Gardner would have described it if it had been Messi on the volley). Why are there so few Brazilians in the EPL? Could it have something to do with the weather or the language? I don't think it's just the English Ref's that are keeping them away.

  12. Daniel Clifton, October 6, 2012 at 3:33 a.m.

    I haven't watched Suarez play in probably about a year. When I have seen him play in the past including the World Cup I don't remember seeing a guy who dives. Unless this is something that he has developed in the last year he did not used to be a diver. I've always enjoyed watching him play including for the Holland club he played for. He is dynamic and constantly putting defenders in difficult positions.

  13. David Mont, October 7, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.

    Has anyone seen Gareth Bale's dive today? An honest, full-blooded Brit taking a dive? Is that even possible? Of course, he's not Suarez (or any other South American), so no need for him to worry about his reputation.

  14. Stevie G, October 8, 2012 at 1:55 a.m.

    It is time to call time on this blog. Why does Soccer America allow it to continue? In every league in every country in the world there are crap teams, crap refs, crap commentators, thugs, divers, cheats, etc etc etc.

    Why does Gardner go on and on and on about England? GIVE IT A REST.

  15. Charles O'Cain, October 8, 2012 at 8:44 a.m. This is the sort of nonsense Pullis is talking about. Considerate of Suarez to provide again such a blatant example for Mr Gardner to review. Can he recognize that this is cheating, pure and simple, and not particularly skillful?

  16. Aaron Murray, October 10, 2012 at 12:05 p.m.

    Gardner's stuff is always interesting and well-done but I don't understand this attitude, so commonly seen in American soccer people. Why must there be some "right" way to play the game. It has to be nonstop passing like Barcelona, on the ground, possession. Why? There are many styles and that's the fun.

    Physical long ball is not boring soccer. I find it very exciting to watch, especially when one team is playing possession and the other playing a physical, long ball game. And though it's absolutely wrong to take someone out with an attempt to injure and never justifiable, even if he cheats and dives, there is also justifiable frustration because diving IS ruining the game.

    The English are right about that. Remember Pele breaking tackles and not going down? Not nearly as many attackers do that anymore. They are pros and they fall to win an advantage . . . understandable to some degree in a professional whose livelihood is on the line. It's quite clear that diving is to blame for this problem. Harsh punishments and video review are essential improvements that are needed to bring back "good soccer" because it seems to me that good soccer is not a player cracking open a tight game by setting himself up for a dive in the box.

  17. Ramon Creager, October 10, 2012 at 5:13 p.m.

    And this is why England will never advance past the quarters of the WC. There are too many good teams out there, and what England play is not good soccer. Now, normally I wouldn't give a damn about this; but every WC and Euro the US soccer press give them way too much (undeserved) coverage. I'm with Michael Ballack on this.

  18. David Mont, October 11, 2012 at 2:10 p.m.

    Another honest English player, Michael Owen, admitting to diving against Argentina in '98 and '02 to win penalties. I'm sure, as a consequence, the English media and coaches will continue their frontal assault on Suarez and other cheating South Americans.

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