Exposed! The shabbiness of the English anti-diving campaign

By Paul Gardner

It was totally right and proper that the farce of the English campaign against diving should be brutally exposed at Wembley, often called “the cathedral” of English soccer.

Exuding an insufferable self-righteousness about diving has long been an English affectation. A rather ugly one, too. Whatever they may tell us, it is still widely held there that only foreigners dive. 

So this season the English are starting another unpleasant witch hunt to punish the villainous divers. I have to point out that, despite the repeated explosions of outrage from England about diving, I have yet to see any reliable stats telling us just how frequent this unspeakable offense is. 

Under the new anti-diving onslaught punishing the offense itself seems much less important than heaping blame and infamy on the offenders in person. The attitude is slavishly reflected in the country’s media. Announcing the new crackdown, Reuters described it as aimed at “players who cheat referees by diving to win a penalty or get an opponent sent off.”

Quite a rap sheet -- cheating referees, getting false penalty kicks, and betraying fellow professionals by getting them red-carded. All that by falling down.

An example of what is known as zero tolerance. Advice to referees: get out there, look for diving, or even what appears to be diving, and pounce. 

So here, on Sunday, we had referee Bobby Madley, presumably highly regarded or he wouldn’t have been chosen to be the ref at the annual curtain-raiser to the English season -- the Community Shield game at Wembley. This year, a London derby, Chelsea vs Arsenal, a replay of last season’s FA Cup final, won by Arsenal.

Madley was doing OK until the 36th minute mark, when Chelsea’s Willian went down in the Arsenal penalty area. And thus begins what is an almost perfect example of why the English witch hunt is a disgrace.

Madley whistled immediately. Not for a penalty kick, but for a free kick to Arsenal and a yellow-card to Willian. For simulation -- i.e. for taking a dive. In Madley’s opinion, he wasn’t fouled.

At that point, the TV commentators take over: Martin Tyler -- by far the best play-by-play man in England, quite possibly in the world -- and Stewart Robson, a former Arsenal midfielder, now a TV analyst. 

Replays were shown, suggesting the possibility of contact. Not massive contact, but enough to unbalance the swiftly moving Willian. That possibility was completely ignored by Robson, who immediately and arrogantly ruled it out: “Certainly not a foul. There’s no question, it’s not a penalty.”

While Robson was thus laying down the law, the replays continued, with each one getting closer to suggesting that he really ought to be less certain. Not him. He ploughed on about there being no penalty kick: “Is he looking for it? He probably is. He kicks his own heel. I think the referee’s got that absolutely right.”

Robson’s knowledge of anatomy seems a bit faulty -- Willian’s heel was not involved, but the replays did show that his moving left leg did knock against the back of his standing right leg. More than enough to bring him down. Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin was right there, close behind Willian, and clearly attempted a tackle.

Having settled the matter, Tyler and Robson returned to the ongoing game. Then, a surprise -- it certainly seemed to take Tyler and Robson by surprise -- a new replay suddenly appeared, quite unannounced.

Evidently the guys in the truck had found something they thought the commentators should see. With good reason. For this new replay showed, unarguably, that Bellerin, running behind Willian had made contact. His left knee knocked against Willian’s left leg as it swung forward. 

For once the camera angle gave a clear view of the sudden change in direction of Willian’s left leg as it was knocked into his right leg. This vital replay began with Bellerin attempting to prod the ball away for Willian -- and failing to do so. That allowed just a moment for Tyler to say (correctly) “There’s no touch there.”  But then came the crucial and clearly visible contact. And resounding silence from Tyler and Robson. 

The contact could have been accidental, but that is immaterial. It was a foul, Willian was tripped by Bellerin, Chelsea should have had a penalty kick, Willian should not have been shown the yellow. 

A turning point in the game? Maybe -- though Chelsea’s subsequent performance in the shootout doesn’t inspire confidence in their penalty shooting. 

But certainly a talking point for the halftime studio gurus, no? No. They -- Mario Melchiot, Warren Barton and Kate Abdo -- simply didn’t discuss the incident. Not a word.

Which nicely defines the English attitude to diving: of course it was a dive, the referee said so, so did the TV expert, so the awkward fact that the TV replay showed clearly that it was not a dive, is calmly ignored. The diving witch hunt is up and running. It has its first victim, a Brazilian.

Right. But what this incident really did was to expose the inevitable injustice of any witch hunt. In a witch hunt there have to be victims. After all, what kind of a witch hunt would it be if it turned out that the supposed crime rarely happened?

There’s no fear of that. Not as long as good referees can invent calls as bad as Madley’s. Even then, it’s difficult to blame Madley. This was not an easy call. What is unacceptable is the arrogance of the call. Madley surely had to have some doubt, right from the start, about what had happened. He could not have seen that there was no contact, because that is not what happened.

But the witch hunters make no allowance for doubt. They know, don’t they ever. If it looks like a dive, however remotely, it must be a dive. I’d like to think that Madley’s error -- which I see more as arrogance than poor judgment -- will make all referees less quick to make diving calls, less ready to comply with the ugly influence of the witch hunters.

17 comments about "Exposed! The shabbiness of the English anti-diving campaign ".
  1. Kenneth Barr, August 6, 2017 at 6:29 p.m.

    First, Robert Madley is statistically more likely to call a dive than a defensive foul. That is his mindset. Second, if he's considered the best the English FA has then the state of officiating there has sunk to a new low. Gone are the days of a George Crawford, Roger Milford or Roger Gifford that officiated with a healthy dose of common sense as well as had impeccable positioning during play. Since assessor reports are never made public we will have no idea how Madley was rated for today's match but given the FA's politics he probably graded quite high. All in all, it's just another typical match for Sweet Fanny Adams.

  2. John Soares, August 6, 2017 at 6:29 p.m.

    Most contacts are not a foul or dive...just part of the game. Some refs seem to feel the need to call "something" when a no call would be much preferable. Went down too easy let him stay down and look foolish. Surprisingly these same refs will often allow the game in general to go way too "physical" let them play, broken legs and all.

  3. Anthony Tognocchi, August 6, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.

    Bravo Mr. Gardner! As always, your analysis is spot on. The stubbornness, or is it stupidity, to not see and subsequently describe what the rest of the world can knows is beyond comprehension.

    The continued movement toward negative football is going to kill the game I love. Keep reporting as you see're seeing it correctly.

  4. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, August 6, 2017 at 6:46 p.m.

    Hogwash. The contact, between the defender's shin and William's ankle, was slight, so it's not unreasonable for the ref not to spot it. In the replays, the announcers were concentrating on the defender's foot, and once that cleared without contact, they stopped looking for contact. In both cases it's human error, not some FA-orchestrated conspiracy. Only an irrationally Anglophobe like Gardner would put it down to conspiracy.

  5. Paul Roby replied, August 7, 2017 at 6:08 p.m.

    You do know that the "Anglophobe" Paul Gardner is English?

  6. dave minshall replied, August 8, 2017 at 9:42 a.m.

    I believe the referee would have needed a video replay to detect the very slight contact on Willian so that he would have arrived at the correct decision. If Madley had done his homework he would have realized Willian does not have a history of going down easily in order to gain penalties, and then he would maybe have given him the benefit of the doubt.

    However I really do have an issue with you saying that Martin Tyler is by far the best play by play commentator.

    He described the red card to Pedro as violent conduct when we clearly know it was Serious Foul Play ... a rookie mistake, and not his first major foot in mouth moment.. enough said..

  7. R2 Dad, August 6, 2017 at 7:07 p.m.

    Agree with John--was it incidental, careless, reckless or excessive force? This appears incidental/trifling and since not all contact should result in a player going down, a no-call would have been the preferred response. By issuing a card the ref is making a judgement call when he didn't have all the facts and therefore proves his fallibility when it would have been better to not remove all doubt.

  8. Kent James, August 7, 2017 at 12:11 a.m.

    PG, I don't doubt you're right on this call, but you're being hard on the ref (though the commentators, since they have the replay, deserve your vitriol if they don't change their mind given clear evidence). You are fight on that refs should hesitate to card a dive; it should not be "he went down to easily" (that should be a no call), it should be reserved for fouls made out of nothing (not embellishments). On the other hand, you are dead wrong to suggest that diving is never a problem.

    First, when players frequently try to game the ref by diving, that makes refs hesitant to call real fouls, to avoid looking foolish if they're being gamed (so they hesitate to call fouls, leading to the kind of physical game you claim to abhor). Second, they make the sport look silly. That aspect earns soccer players undeserved reputations for being weak. Not helpful when you're trying to grow the game.

    To me, the solution is for refs to be very hesitant to call people for diving during the game, but if players dive, they should be punished retroactively, and reasonably severely.

  9. Kevin Leahy, August 7, 2017 at 10:36 a.m.

    The FA has a big concern about diving but, not time wasting and feinting injury. Trying to influence the game with phony dramatics is drag on the game in all phases. The players make a mockery of the game with all the stunts they pull. I rememeber Luca Toni in the World Cup against the U.S. The biggest guy on the field kept going down every time someone came near him. The carding of a player should be without a doubt.

  10. ROBERT BOND, August 7, 2017 at 10:48 a.m.

    maybe if they did not always throw up their hands and scream like they have been shot...

  11. Forever Blue, August 7, 2017 at 11:11 a.m.

    A foul is when contact causes a change in the players movement, momentum or balance. Unfortunately the rule do not specify the degree of contact. It up to the ref's judgement. Refs make mistakes and that's part of the game. I do believe that you cannot target or mandate a campaign against diving without VAR. There are just too many angles and views to consider and make an accurate judgement that may warrant a card.

  12. beautiful game, August 7, 2017 at 12:02 p.m.

    Obviously, diving puts the ref in a bind unless there is a clear view of the incident. Diving should be reviewed post-game and a hefty monetary penalty assessed ($10K) with a two game ban. That should send the message.

  13. Footballer Forever, August 7, 2017 at 1:27 p.m.

    Huh! with such title, I had to check it out and it had to be "Get off my lawn" Paul Gardner. Nothing to read or see if it pertains to such ignorant and obnoxious blogger. :P

  14. Anthony Pignataro, August 7, 2017 at 3:31 p.m.

    Every contact looks like a foul in slow-mo. Announcers should not rely n slow-mo to look for a foul. Normal speed shows if it is a dive better then slow-mo.

  15. uffe gustafsson, August 7, 2017 at 8:42 p.m.

    Well there is also the reputation of players taking a dive, like Suarez and refs learn that.
    Remember the video of Italian team practice diving. That said not all falls are dives and refs need to make really sure it's a none contact before issue a card for it.
    I don't like it either when players dive in the box it makes the game a clown circus.
    So why not let replays later be the inforcement by the league to punish obvious divers. That should put a stop on it.

  16. R2 Dad, August 16, 2017 at 7:52 p.m.

    And cue La Liga, where Ronaldo earns a red for diving, sparking a retaliatory push and 5 game suspension. The Butterfly Effect in action.

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