An English obsession, then? I’d say so. And certainly not one that is limited to the Premier League. Here we have Neal Ardley, coach of AFC Wimbledon, a team in League One (not as good as it sounds -- League One is a euphemism for the third division). Ardley was lamenting the red card given to one of his players in a League Cup game against the Premier League’s West Ham United.
His target was Chicharito (a foreigner, be it noted), who, in the 18th minute, had gone to ground under a challenge from Wimbledon’s Rod McDonald. A foul, said referee Tim Robinson ... and a yellow card. That was McDonald’s second yellow, so off he went and Wimbledon was down to 10-men. It lost the game, 1-3.
Did Chicharito dive? “For the contact that there was between the two players, absolutely,” said Ardley “It’s not like a yank of the arm. It’s not like a pull of the shirt. It’s an arm on an arm.”
Ardley somehow forgot to use the phrase that constantly crops up in England -- “he went down too easily” -- but he continued with some revealing comments on diving: “We talk about diving all the time. We make comments about stopping diving in the game but you get nothing in the game if you don’t dive. Nowadays if you don’t go down, the ref won’t give you anything. So, they encourage diving.”
Which is pretty good summary of the pickle the English have created for themselves with their diving obsession. Now it is the referees who are to blame.
Ardley is quite right to zero in on the role referees play in fostering diving. But their contribution is worse than Ardley suggests. He feels that referees call fouls only when the player fouled goes down. Not so. There are far too many examples of referees not making calls even when a victim is virtually battered to the ground for that notion to be credible.
English referees now clearly work to an agenda in which the first thing question for them to answer when a player goes down under a challenge is not was there contact? -- but was there sufficient contact. A biased way of looking at an incident, this is merely “he went down too easily” in disguise.
A couple of weeks after Ardley’s comments, the damage to a referee’s judgment caused by that attitude was there for all to see in Wembley Stadium. Tottenham Hotspur, trailing Liverpool 2-1 in the final minute, should have been given a penalty kick.
Referee Michael Oliver bottled the call when Liverpool’s Sadio Mane obviously fouled Spurs’ forward Son Heung-min. I say “obviously” because that is what I saw. Either a penalty kick or a yellow to Son for the most prodigiously clever dive yet. The replay quickly confirmed the contact -- no doubt at all. Penalty.
Referee Oliver did not give the penalty, nor did he caution Son for diving. There can be only one explanation for such ineptitude from a top referee: he was looking for no-contact or minimal contact, couldn’t be sure that was what he was seeing, so waved play on.
The following day, the sports pages of The Mail On Sunday reflected the confusion. Ex-referee Chris Foy supported his referee colleague, claiming he [Foy] had to look at the replay three times (presumably on the third try he did notice the contact) so it was excusable that Oliver missed it. Yet, on the very same page, the Mail’s match report by Oliver Holt -- its chief sports writer -- said flatly that Spurs “should have had a penalty in the dying seconds when Mane kicked Son’s standing foot away from him.”
That same weekend, there was another penalty incident in the Bournemouth-Leicester game. As Leicester’s Jamie Vardy raced in on goal, Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic dived at his feet. Begovic did not touch the ball, but he did send Vardy flying through the air. There could hardly have been a more obvious penalty call. Referee Craig Pawson allowed play to continue.
Two shockingly bad calls -- both, I believe, resulting from a distorted refereeing attitude that favors inaction or diving calls over strict punishment of physical fouls.
Such a refereeing attitude must inevitably make life hard for skillful players -- particularly those who like to dribble. Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha knows the problem. He was one of the five most-fouled players in the Premier League last year, and is again in the top five this season.
Last weekend’s game against Huddersfield saw Zaha the victim of several crunching tackles -- Mathias Jorgensen's effort was duly yellow-carded by the referee, but Zaha was not happy with that decision: "I feel like before anyone gets a red card I’d have to get my leg broken,” he complained, adding that the lack of protection from referees made him reluctant “to go on a run because someone will come through the back of you.”
A sad reflection on English refereeing. And the coaches, too. Zaha’s coach at Crystal Palace is Roy Hodgson, widely respected as a gentleman among coaches, he is one of only five English managers in the EPL. Just listen to this: “Those players who are quick and good at running with the ball, they get fouled. They have to accept this will happen ... Wilf [Zaha] doesn’t think people should treat him unfairly, but he’s learning.”
So Zaha must learn to get kicked and mauled. In Hodgson’s (very English) view, that’s all part of the game. No mention of the referee’s role. Another of the EPL’s English coaches, Neil Warnock (Cardiff City) makes no effort to hide his primitive view of the game. Before Cardiff’s game against Arsenal earlier this season, he spoke of Aaron Ramsey as Arsenal’s big threat, adding “I hope we can rough him up a bit. . . Needs must.”
Warnock has his own view of players who get fouled a lot: it’s their own fault, as they’re too good. Eden Hazard, for instance: “The reason Hazard gets fouled a lot is because he’s so quick, so deceptive, so good. Some lads in the division will be late at times but it’s merely because they’re not at his level.”
Doesn’t look too promising for ball artists in England, does it? If they dribble too much, they’ll get fouled, which will be their own fault for ... dribbling too much. Anyway, the players doing the fouling don’t mean any harm, they’re just not quick enough -- or maybe, again, the victim has brought trouble on himself by being too quick. And if the dribbler gets knocked off his feet he’ll stand a pretty good chance of being accused of diving.