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.
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?