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.