Commentary

Tactical fouls and studs-up tackles dangerously overshadowed by diving hysteria

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- This fatuous business of turning simulation, or diving, into the worst crime that a player can commit continues -- and continues to have ridiculous side effects.

We can look at the current status of Chelsea's Diego Costa, the striker who has been ripping Premier League defenses apart -- he has scored eight goals in six games. But he has also been hit with three yellow cards; two more and he gets a one-game ban.

Two of the yellows were for retaliation -- Costa is a fiery guy -- though it was pretty clear that the yellow he got during Chelsea's game against Everton came as the result of deliberate provocation from Everton players. Well, Costa will have to learn how to deal with that, and no doubt he will.

But the third caution was for diving. In his very first game in the EPL. A call that looked wrong at the moment, and which replays immediately proved to be wrong. Referee Michael Oliver gave Costa a yellow, but Oliver got it badly wrong.

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No matter -- that totally unjustified yellow goes on to Costa's record, making him that much closer to a suspension. Nothing can be done about it -- a red card can be canceled, but not a yellow card.

I'm sorry guys -- I mean referees -- this just isn't acceptable. Is it asking too much that you work out an agreed set of criteria for exactly what constitutes simulation, and put a stop to these nonsensical calls that are made because the referee didn't approve of the way that the fouled player fell down.

I said nonsensical. We have had an MLS call this season -- by referee Allen Chapman -- that went beyond nonsensical to become just plain imbecilic. What else is to be said when a referee ignores an utterly obvious penalty kick foul to punish instead a lesser foul, a foul that he has invented -- of simulation? That is sure-fire proof that Chapman has decided, or has had it decided for him, that he must pay more attention to imagined diving episodes than to giving penalty kicks.

Whatever kind of refereeing is that? It distorts the game in so many ways -- the wrong call is made, the player committing the foul gets away with it, the innocent player gets a yellow card marked to his record ... and no penalty kick is given.

Ah. That last point raises an even thornier point: Is it possible that a referee would use a diving call as a sort of camouflage to avoid awarding a penalty kick?

Is it possible that Chapman (and Oliver) used a diving call in an attempt to convince everyone that there had been no foul and therefore no penalty? Of course it is. A diving call is a very convenient -- I would say tempting -- way for a referee to dodge a big call. I have no doubt that a referee or two has used that escape in the past. The temptation is put there, right in front of his nose, by the referee authorities. Who should know better -- from whom we have a right to expect better.

But referees -- specifically on this issue of simulation -- do not help their own position. During this summer's World Cup we had the case Dutchman Arjen Robben who admitted, apologetically, that he had dived during Netherlands' game against Mexico. The dive was either not spotted, or was ignored by the referee. Late in the game, Robben was fouled in the box and got a genuine penalty kick.

But Robben is complaining that his admission has damned him, and that referees in the Bundesliga are now reluctant to call fouls against him. In particular, he feels he should have been awarded a penalty kick in the weekend's game against Cologne.

An allegation that was greeted with what has now become the standard referee response when a referee gets a diving call wrong. Thus: well, it may have been a penalty, but if the foul wasn't called it's the player's own fault for not falling down properly. That is the argument advanced by German league referee boss, Hellmut Krug: "He [Robben] also has to blame himself. Because he attracted attention by falling early, the player bears part of the blame."

But then Krug went on to say something that is definitely not standard referee talk. He called Robben's protest "nonsense," adding that "Every referee is happy when he can award a clear penalty."

Eh? Referees happy to award penalty kicks? News to me. But I think that's probably not quite what Krug was saying. I think what he means is that referees are pleased when the foul is so obvious that no one, not even the coach of the offending team, can be in any doubt that the ref has made the right decision.

Meaning that referees are not wildly happy giving penalty kicks on anything less than a glaringly obvious foul. If that is the case -- and I feel that it is -- then it is legitimate to ask why such a stringent approach should not also be employed when making simulation calls? Because at the moment we see too many such calls where the referee is evidently quite "happy" to make an iffy simulation call.

That simulation should be punished is a given. But that it should be singled out as the most heinous of soccer crimes, and that special -- greatly relaxed -- criteria should be used when calling it ... none of that is acceptable. It is now quite clear that, as far as MLS is concerned, PRO boss Peter Walton has issued an "initiative" calling for a clamp down on diving. He has never told us what he has done, but what we see on the field lets us know.

A clamp-down is one thing, but a witch hunt is something quite different. And Chapman's call -- there have been others -- smells of the witch hunt. If Walton wants a witch hunt, why would he not focus on tactical fouls, which infest every game, which consistently break up play, but which are often not greeted with the yellow card that the rules demand?

Why would he not demand that MLS referees clamp down on violent play? We've just had a perfect example of the complacent, forgiving approach that is applied to dangerous tackling. The collision between Toronto's Mark Bloom and Portland's Will Johnson that has put Johnson, poor guy, out of the game for six months with a broken leg. No foul was called. Just two guys going for the ball, we are told.

In fact, a strong case can be made for red-carding both players. Sliding in frontally and hard, studs (inevitably) up, is certainly at least reckless play, and surely likely to cause injury to an opponent. Caleb Porter, Johnson's coach, described the injury as "unfortunate." No doubt, but there was an air of inevitability about this misfortune.

Not a foul? Why on earth is there such eagerness to excuse the violence? Why is it considered a sensible comment to remark that "Neither guy was going after each other," as did Toronto coach Greg Vanney? Nobody is saying there was any maliciousness or intent to hurt by either player.

That is not the point. What matters here is that both players were surely "Using excessive force,” which, the rules tell us, means that a player has "far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent."

Yes, there are various ways of making light of their play, of excusing their actions -- but the fact remains that Johnson suffered a serious injury. And Mark Bloom can consider himself lucky not to have been hurt. Why would one be looking for reasons to make light of an incident like that?

The problem here is a fundamental one for the sport. If a studs-up tackle is considered dangerous, which it is, then how can the slide tackle -- which is always a studs-up tackle -- be allowed at all?

At PRO, that worrying problem is shoved aside to make way for diving, as Walton has MLS referees assiduously sniffing out imaginary simulation offenses. How many broken legs have resulted from simulation?

12 comments about "Tactical fouls and studs-up tackles dangerously overshadowed by diving hysteria".
  1. Carl Walther, September 30, 2014 at 4:47 p.m.

    "Why is there such eagerness to excuse the violence?"
    There is a core of officials, fans, and broadcasters who have psychological masculinity issues and equate violent play with masculine toughness. More common in countries like England, but still a major problem here. If you attend youth games, you can witness it starting with the things dads yell at their kids. Don't think the current crop of MLS officials will be the type to attempt to fix this.
    (Yes, I am a psychologist.)

  2. Allan Lindh, September 30, 2014 at 7:11 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner is on a roll, several columns in a row that reflect intelligent common sense. Yellow cards for simulation, if not given, rarely impact the game. Let a disciplinary committee review the tapes after the match, call diving then, and lower the boom on flagrant dives -- one game for first offence, three games thereafter. Simulation calls now are little more than guesses, just cut it out.

  3. Glenn Auve, September 30, 2014 at 7:24 p.m.

    Robben has been "simulating" fouls for years now. His reputation has finally caught up to him. Just like Ronaldo couldn't buy a call for years based on his reputation.

  4. Michael Borga, September 30, 2014 at 8:35 p.m.

    Not all sliding tackles are straight legged studs up leg breakers. However I do agree with Paul that the straight legged knee locked full weight sliding tackles should be instantly yellow carded as overtly reckless and that this particular technique should be outlawed. Just like the head slap was outlawed in the NFL.

  5. Kelly Ross, September 30, 2014 at 9:29 p.m.

    Multiple issues to be dealt with in the game, as pointed out by Mr. Gardner: (1) Attacking players who knowingly and willingly dive to cheat the game. Attacking players need to get back to the best traditions of the game in the best spirit of fair play and be honest about their style of play; attacking players need to stop diving. (2) Referees need to appropriately and accurately award penalty kicks if/when warranted and justified. The ongoing belief that a PK award decision potentially influences the outcome of a game is at best, absurd, and at worse, cheating the game. If a defending player through intent, clumsiness or just sheer bad luck, commits an penal offense against an opponent within the defending penalty area, should be punished. PERIOD. Referees should be confident in such a decision, when/if warranted and justified. Why referees are hesitant to award a spot kick is beyond me, just as referees are hesitant to dismiss a player for a second cautionable offense or a straight red for careless/reckless play or play that endangers the safety of an opponent (Lee Mason correctly and quickly did so; dismissing Wayne Rooney for his foul against West Ham's Stewart Downing this past Sunday). Spelling out exactly what "simulation" is would still not address the core of the problem; spelling out what simulation is would still leave a wide "interpretation" of what simulation isn't ... which would still fall under the prevue of those 7 magical words from the Laws of the Game"; "If, in the opinion of the referee."

  6. Ron Beilstein, September 30, 2014 at 10:34 p.m.

    Re the collision between TFC's Bloom and PTFC's Johnson, both players had their legs folded back as they went into the tackle; the contact was shin to shin. I refereed for twenty years, and I didn't see a foul, much less a caution even after multiple viewings. By the way, I'm a Timbers fan.
    That said, I agree that MLS could benefit from more cautions for tactical fouls and much less hunting for dives.

  7. R2 Dad, September 30, 2014 at 10:56 p.m.

    Carding simulation is indeed a slippery slope. Referees would be much better off ignoring it than trying to determine how much contact was made, whether it was trifling but simulation-enhanced--that makes a difficult job impossible. Fortunately at the youth level we don't see much of it. The issue of going to ground is also not so much a problem, thankfully, with the kids. But the professionals that do suffer the most. Stuart Holden and Jack Wilshere, two promising attacking players raised with british values, both who insisted that going to ground was an important part of their game. Both injured frequently, both missing important national team appearances because they couldn't help themselves from slide-tackling. What a waste.

  8. Kent James, September 30, 2014 at 11:44 p.m.

    Ron, you are right in correcting PG's erroneous description of the Johnson/Bloom tackle, though I'd suggest a slightly more nuanced position. I think you'd be hard pressed to call a foul, since both players did essentially the same thing (Bloom gets the ball slightly before Johnson, so if anyone should be called for a foul, it's Johnson), but I think an argument could be made that each player went into the tackle with excessive force. And carding Johnson (even if you also carded Bloom) would be a tad on the harsh side, since he was already suffering from a broken leg...

  9. Kent James, September 30, 2014 at 11:56 p.m.

    While Gardner's comments about dangerous tackles and too much foul play are spot on, he lost me (either intellectually, if I'm not understanding what he's saying, or philosophically, if he's saying what he seems to be saying) when he said "how can the slide tackle -- which is always a studs-up tackle--be allowed at all?" Either we disagree on what "studs up" means, or he's not the seasoned soccer reporter I thought he was. A good slide tackle essentially creates a wall (possible curved to capture the ball) in front of the dribbler to make sure the ball cannot continue forward; the studs are AWAY from the offensive player (the laces are contacting the ball). A blocking slide tackle can have the studs facing down (to grip the ground and provide stability); which again, is not dangerous. Most "studs up" tackles are from the front, and I would characterize them more as lunges (since often the ground is not contacted until after the tackle). Caribbean players often employ a 2 footed tackle which can be a blocking tackle (both feet planted firmly in the ground in front of the ball) but often becomes a very dangerous 2 footed studs up challenge (when they jump forward to attack the ball). Good slide tackles are not dangerous (unless they're done on a rough field, in which case they hurt the tackler as the rough ground tears up his/her leg that is "sliding"). Slide tackling is part of the art of defending that PG continues to deny is part of a skillful game of soccer.

  10. Zoe Willet, October 1, 2014 at 12:43 a.m.

    The problem is diving and violence. The solution, it seems to me, lies primarily with the manager and coaches, who are supervising and training the players. Of course the refs are the final arbiters, but aren't the managers and coaches responsible for their players' behavior/actions? I just don't think they should be left off the hook, yet nobody ever mentions them. Of course diving isn't the end of the world, but it's stupid, ignorant and unsportsmanlike, and should play no part in the game.

  11. Lou vulovich, October 1, 2014 at 1:34 a.m.

    You are spot on again PAUL. What destroys the game
    is a bunch of goons whom spend more time today in the weight room then on a soccer field.... Tactical fouls
    and intention to injure an opponent are the problem not divers. Paul this type of refereeing exists not only in the pros but down to the very young ages in the youth.(the reason you see fewer skilled players today then ever before) With the way the game is refereed today, coaches seek out big physical players not creative skilled ones....The way the game is refereed determines the style of soccer and the type of soccer player whom will be successful. While Louis Suarez deserved what he got, there are players who intentionally injure another player in front of a professional referee every week and everyone at the game seems to spot the dirty foul except the referee. In soccer people pay money to see great individual and team skill and not what exists today in most soccer matches....tactical...physical...brainless and very robotic soccer. That is what kills the game not diving.

  12. Wolfgang Wostl, October 1, 2014 at 7:21 p.m.

    Allen Lindh you are right on!

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