England tangled up in diving witch hunt

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.

10 comments about "England tangled up in diving witch hunt".
  1. Emilio AlHaq, October 13, 2012 at 3:32 a.m.

    One of the first rules of journalism is not to change a quote but it seems Gardner can't help altering them to suit his yankee audience. Alonso never used the yankee term for football i.e. 'soccer' in his autobiography. He probably wouldn’t even recognise the word.

    Gardner’s other gross inaccuracies include referring to the 25-year-old Ryan Shawcross who is playing in only his sixth season in the Premier League as a ‘veteran.’ His reference to him as a ‘monster’ is laughable. It is also absurd to say that Shawcross has “a formidable record of sending opponents to the [sic] hospital.” When Gardner makes a statement he is unable to back it up. Gardner – tell us about Shawcross’ ‘formidable’ record by showing exactly how many players have gone to hospital as a result of his challenges over his career history.

    Regarding the new football academy in Staffordshire I am curious as to why Gardner did not choose to quote FA Chairman David Bernstein on one of the key issues? Maybe it is because it would not fit his tired rhetoric.

    Bernstein said: “We're trying to move young players away from this physical side, of wanting to win too much when they're too young. We want more skill-based football, kids to enjoy their football more.”

  2. Charles O'Cain, October 13, 2012 at 8:55 a.m.

    Well, if Mr Gardner has really watched the Suarez performance "about 10 times" and can't see the dive for what it was, then that is a truly sad commentary on his perceptive abilities and confirms his blind anti-British bias. He should declare this conflict of interest and restrict his commentary to La Liga and the Central and South American leagues where the "style" is more to his liking (and understanding).

  3. Gus Keri, October 13, 2012 at 11:51 a.m.

    I agree with Paul on the presense of "contact" in Suarez's case. If you see the film again, you can see that the defender took the right foot from underneath Suarez which led to him to lose balance and touch the ground with both hands. The initial contact didn't lead to a complete fall; and here where Suarez made the wrong decision. Instead of trying to get up and continue, he elected to continue going down to the ground and it looked like a very bad example of acting. It was a dive, no doubt, but why the initial contact which led to the imbalance was not punished? There are many divers in the EPL, but the difference between Suarez and the other divers is that he doesn't know how to act. Suarez had been denied 4 clear and legitimate PK calls before because of the English refereeing bias agaist him. He is so frustrated. What does he need to do to get his fair share in this league?

  4. Kent James, October 13, 2012 at 1:45 p.m.

    Paul, a player who has been fouled has no obligation to stay up (to play through the foul), but the emphasis should be on the phrase "who has been fouled". Touching a player does not constitute a foul. So a player who is touched (bumped or jostled even), and then throws himself to the ground has dived. Just as defenders who consciously foul offensive players are cheaters, players who seek to get a foul called when no foul has been committed are cheaters. Neither should garner any respect. Players should focus on playing the game, not gaming the ref. While I can understand (and support) an effort to protect players from thuggery, surely you can admit that there are people who dive, and that it is a bad thing? I think the phrase "knocked down with a feather" appropriately describes people who are not looking to the referee for protection, but are rather looking to the referee to help them win the game. In a low scoring sport, players creating imaginary fouls that turn into game winning penalty kicks is a problem that should be addressed, and is just as serious as players who try to prevent goals through dishonest means. Letting such players affect the outcome of the game is not fair to the players who play the game honestly.

  5. Ken Jamieson, October 13, 2012 at 3:16 p.m.

    Honesty and integrity are becoming qualities in short supply in most professional sports. Whether it is the player who is fouled or the player committing the foul, rarely do we see these qualities applied.
    Even on the most flagrant fouls, professional players argue and deny culpability, while a player seeking an advantage will drop at the slightest contact and roll around in sheer agony. Perhaps the most unsporting gesture in professional football today is the demanding of a card by the victim. Raising their hand and motioning the card in hopes that the perpetrator will be sanctioned.
    The win at all cost mentality leads to these less than honourable acts, the earlier we teach kids that the final result is all that matters the earlier they will learn to apply these dubious skills.

  6. Aaron Murray, October 13, 2012 at 9:13 p.m.

    Nice article though I don't agree with these opinions about English tackling and diving.

    Don't see how any former player would think that a well-timed, clean, good CRUNCHING tackle isn't an important and integral part of the game. No reason to think that soccer must somehow "evolve" into a sport of dancing and thinking. That's all good, but that's not all.

    Soccer IS a very physical, contact sport and always has been. Hard tackles ARE also good soccer. Pele the artist did plenty of hard tackling himself. And Pele admired the defensive genius of English soccer as manifested in guys like Bobby Moore. A well-time tackled by Moore is a thing of beauty as much as is a swerving Zidane dribble.

    Soccer isn't a sport only for cerebral Spaniards (although the fact is that Barcelona play incredible defense too, let's not forget -- and you can consider Madrid's Sergio Ramos an artist when it comes to fantastic, and HARD tackles) but soccer is also a sport for rough-and-tumble, blue-collar players from any country. And the English do usually tackle clean -- you can see it coming and you know it's going to hurt! -- they don't often pull a Dunga or a Rossi sending someone to the hospital with a dirty elbow when he wasn't looking. Having experienced this and been around it, I know that hard CLEAN tackles very rarely result in injury.

    Hats off to the English for being the only ones to dare to go after FIFA corruption and cheating divers.

    That said, I liked this piece -- though I can't agree with Mr. Gardner! Yet again, well-written, provocative article.

  7. Stevie G, October 13, 2012 at 10:22 p.m.

    Gardner is right about one thing. Pulis IS ridiculous... but wrong about another... nobody likes Stoke. NOBODY.

    That said, Gardner's fascination with Brits, and the English in particular, is bordering on the perverse. Not only that, it has become SO predictable, and so unbelievably tedious and boring.

    This is SOCCER AMERICA folks.

    I can read the Sun if I want to find out when ref missed a diving call and when a ref missed a straight red quality foul.

    Can we get a blog that talks about, you know, Soccer in America?

  8. G G, October 15, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.

    Britain is a cancer to the world. I live in this piece of shit country and it makes me sick how pathetic is it. People talk about America being racist, this country is not only racist but they are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical inbreds. Paul Gardner is right in everything he says about the idiot British morons.

  9. Roger Stamp, October 18, 2012 at 5:32 a.m.

    @GG Why would you choose to live in Britain if it is “a cancer to the world,” as you say it is? Your poor grammar and use of the English language highlights that you are not from the island. I suggest you go and live in the US in the deep south where a ‘foreign’ boy like you will be abused, raped and shot at just for walking in the ‘wrong’ part of town.

  10. Steve Farrugia, October 20, 2012 at 3:49 p.m.

    I think Paul should look a little deeper into the true facts and statistics of Stoke City's play and approach to life in the Premiership. If you actually took the time to do this and watch uk football you would realise Stokes plan was always to slowly play their way up the league table but starting from a strong sound base starting with defence. Its all very well trying to play positive beautiful passing football if you can buy £150M worth of footballing talent on immediate entry to the division but its unlikely that any club would ever be able to do this.

    A close trawl through actual statistics will show that Stoke are not the monsters lazy poor journos make them out to be and much of the negativity thrown at them comes from other managers and supporters who fail to break them down and use the claims to cover up the poor performance of their tactics and players.

    The hospital tackle that Paul refers to is of course the Shawcross / Ramsey one but only a fool would infer that Shawcross deliberately tackled to hurt Ramsey. It was Arsene Wenger's ludicrous attempts to protect his players that has given Shawcross and Stoke this negative unfair press and people should look at Arsenals record of both discipline and results which show how desperate and paranoid Wenger was at this time as his playing style and managerial skills fell under the spotlight.

    I have yet to see anything malicious and nothing different from any other team.

    Pulis likes teams that can defend first and has always had a reputation of perhaps sometimes being more determined not to lose rather than going out to win but this is perfect sense for the first few Prem seasons and has worked well in comparison with teams that tried to play and win only to find themselves outplayed and relegated by established teams that had better more expensive players that eventually overwhelmed their first few games enthusiasm! Its all very well getting to the prem but as with Brad Pitt and his film Moneyball if you can't compete financially you have to come up with a strategy thats going to give you a fighting chance of staying up while you build a war chest of money to buy a quality team.

    This season Pulis HAS strengthened his team and each season has seen him try to introduce a little more quality and it does seem that this season they are attacking teams and going for it. If they can do that and still defend like lions perhaps they will have shown the way to take on the rich and survive.

    I'd rather see that than to lose every week and get relegated and even then playing good football is still much more that playing the ball with 50 pass moves that barely get past the midfield. Its good to watch a game with one team playing one style and the other battling to take them on with another tactic.

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