A diving call in England that invites open derision

What’s this, then? High noon at Wembley? Actually, a little later, around 3:15 p.m. Sunday, February 10. These are the guys with a problem -- 25-year-old English defender Harry Maguire from Leicester City, and Son Heung Min, 26-year-old South Korean forward from Tottenham Hotspur -- seen menacing each other with their imaginary finger pistols. The cause of the showdown? A clash -- a “coming-together” as the vogue phrase rather neatly and neutrally puts it -- in the Leicester City penalty area.

At issue: did Maguire foul Son (did he trip Son with his tackle)? Or was the tackle quite legal, and Son took a dive? Take a look ...

[ABOVE LEFT] This is how it started. A poor pass from Spurs’ Christian Eriksen, intended for Son, is intercepted by Maguire. Maguire’s sloppy control allows Son to dart in and steal the ball. Here Son is using his right foot to move the ball to his left, away from Maguire. [ABOVE RIGHT] Maguire has decided he can reclaim the ball and is about to launch a tackle, using his right foot. Son continues to nudge the ball away from him.

Referee Michael Oliver [above, extreme left] seems well-positioned. Maybe he could be a bit closer, but that’s almost a cliche when talking of refereeing. He’s about 10 yards away from the action, which is OK. Or it would be, except that a Leicester defender -- No. 6 Jonny Evans -- has managed to plant himself slap-bang between Oliver and the action -- a position that must surely have interfered with Oliver’s sight line.

This is how the action proceeded:

[LEFT] Maguire is now committed to his tackle. He is stretching his right leg in front of Son’s legs, across his path, in an attempt to poke the ball away. [RIGHT] Maguire’s right leg is at full stretch. His right foot is now firmly on the ground, having got as far as it can get. He comes very close, but the ball, nudged by Son, is rolling away from him. Maguire does not reach the ball. But his right leg, having failed as a tackling weapon, is now a solid obstacle directly in the way of Son’s right leg. Son duly trips over it, goes to ground ...

With Son on the ground referee Michael Oliver takes over and immediately stops play to give Son a yellow card for diving. No hesitation by Oliver, not even a hint of doubt in his decision-making. Now, Oliver is one of the best EPL referees . . . but did he get this one right?

For sure, this was not the easiest call to make. But Oliver’s decision was so immediate and so peremptory that you have to assume that he felt he knew at once what had happened. If one believes - and I certainly do - that a tackle in which the tackler does not make contact with the ball but does make contact with the opponent, is automatically a foul, then Oliver’s certainty that there was no foul can only mean that he believes Maguire touched the ball. Something that did not happen.

The question then becomes: Did Maguire make physical contact with Son? Yes, there was there contact. Did Maguire trip Son? My answer is yes, he definitely did.

But there is a different way of looking at actions like this one (the alternative facts, if you like), one that frankly dismays me, but one that I have heard offered for serious consideration in previous cases. It goes like this: Son did trip over Maguire’s leg, but when Maguire jabbed out his leg he did not make contact, that came an instant or two later when Son ran into the leg. So it was Son who initiated the contact.

A semantic distinction, not one with any meaningful practical application. Except that it contains the implication that the player being tripped -- Son in this case -- is responsible because he didn’t take action to avoid the opponent’s challenge.

Of course there are occasions when a lunging challenge is avoided but that was certainly not the case here. Son had no time -- or space -- to dodge Maguire’s leg. Whether it was Maguire or Son who made the first contact is irrelevant. Maguire is obviously the guilty party for stepping directly across Son’s path.

Rule 12 of the FIFA rulebook specifies that a player who “trips or attempts to trip” an opponent is guilty of a foul. It does not define, does not need to define, “trip.”

What I have described above is of course my viewpoint. I have been particularly diligent in assessing what the telecast shows. After a great many replays (around 30 trying to establish whether Maguire played the ball), repeated freeze frames, plus a good deal of exasperated cursing, my assessment is as presented above.

And my conclusion is that referee Oliver got this call badly wrong. His decision is based on an assumption, or on guess work. Or, more likely, the result of the almost feverish rush-to-judgment anti-diving atmosphere that prevails in England at the moment. Maguire did not play the ball. And Son was tripped.

My view receives support from the TV commentators. This is significant, because it is unusual. It has become a commonplace for commentators to be hawkish on diving calls, to freely accuse players of “going down too easily.” The immediate response of the commentators (play-by-play man Jim Proudfoot and analyst Andy Townsend) fit that pattern. They did not question the call. Then, quickly, came the replay and in the middle of it a sudden, surprised “Oooh! Wow!” from Townsend, and after a moment’s pause, “That’s a penalty. That is a very harsh call from Michael Oliver. Very harsh.” Proudfoot also felt that Son was hard done by: “He’s not the type of player who has a reputation for going down easily.” A rare occasion when the TV guys don’t agree with a diving call.

Barely two weeks ago I wrote about another awful diving call in England -- made against Burnley’s Ashley Barnes. A call so utterly bad it was simply laughable. I do not find it strange that, in England, experienced referees make bad diving calls. Calls that are a disgrace to the referees, to their profession, and to the sport. There will be more such calls. They will continue until the authorities come to their senses and work out a way to deal with what is actually a minor problem.

One that has been turned into nothing less than a witch hunt and a moral crusade combined. In such a heated and distorted atmosphere, is it any wonder that good referees -- afire with the desire to expose the unspeakable divers -- make horrendously bad calls? One of the more deplorable aspects of the referees position is that these calls are virtually beyond criticism. Yellow cards do not get reviewed, so referees making egregious diving calls are not likely to suffer any disciplinary action.

It is particularly depressing to see the referees not only caught up in this nonsense, but actually contributing to its spread.

13 comments about "A diving call in England that invites open derision".
  1. Kent James, February 19, 2019 at 4:28 p.m.

    First, this is an exceptionally difficult call, because there are a couple of very gray areas.  First, if McGuire gets the ball, no foul (so if the ref mistakenly thought he did, understandable no call for PK).  But assuming he didn't, the next issue is did McGuire's leg trip Son?  If a log is laying across a path, and I am able to step over it, but choose to drag my foot on it and fall down, did the log trip me?  Or did I choose to be tripped?  While the answer to this might be better offered by a Zen master, I'll go out on a limb and say if a player can avoid an obstacle in his path, he has the obligation to try to do so.  Could Son have avoided McGuire's leg?  I don't think so, I think the contact was inevitable.  Was the contact enough to trip Son?  There, I think probably not, but open question.  Which comes to the last piece of evidence (and the key to Son's intent).  His right leg is impeded by McGuire, but his next step is with his left leg.  If he steps with his left, he may be able to continue running, but feeling the contact with McGuire, knowing he's in the box and unlikely to get the ball, Son makes the classic decision of a diver to pull his left leg back and go down, rather than stepping forward with it (and I'm guessing the ref saw that, and that's why he called him for diving).  But this is graduate level diving.  While I understand the card, and I understand Son's instinct to try to get the foul, I think we can't truly know whether or not a PK was deserved.  I think if Son tries to step on his left leg and either cannot or never regains his balance, then McGuire's challenge tripped him, and he deserves a PK.  I think if the ref's not sure if it's a foul, and he sees Son embellishing it, he should just not call the PK (on the assumption if it was a real foul, there would be no need to embellish it).  And since there was contact (I think!), Son did not make up the foul, he was just trying to make contact enough to call a PK, so no card.  If there was no contact by McGuire on Son's leg, then yes, it deserved a card.  And the ref is supposed to see all this and decide in a fraction of a second.  Tough job.

  2. R2 Dad replied, February 19, 2019 at 9:39 p.m.

    Yes, but you've perfectly explained why that should be a no-call vs a card for diving.

  3. Kent James, February 19, 2019 at 4:38 p.m.

    On diving as a general issue that always puts a bee in PG's bonnet, I think he's making a mountain out of a mole hill.  Yes, it is embarrassing for an official to give a card to a player for diving when he was fouled.  No ref wants to do that.  But the real problem is the missed PK, not the card.  For a forward to get a yellow card for diving, even if it was undeserved, should not be a big problem.  He needs to just avoid a second yellow card during the rest of the game, and that really should not be too hard to do.  So most of the time, it's not a problem.  If a player accumulates enough cards for diving that are undeserved that he has to sit out a game, something's out of wack, so that's unlikely to happen either.  

    On the other hand, if cards for diving actually reduces the number of dives, the rare ejection caused by an undeserved yellow card is certainly compensated for by referees actually calling more PKs because there are many fewer dives so refs can call what they see rather than what players are trying to make them see.  In other words, refs are less hesistant to call PKs because they are less likely to be embarrased by calling a PK for a foul that did not exist.  Less hesitancy to call PKs should reduce the number of fouls in the box increasing the safety of the players and encouraging attacking play.  Not sure how you can measure potential pk fouls not called, but even without statistical evidence (which PG abhors anyway), as a former ref, I know that the potential for diving makes me more histant to call fouls in the box, so I think it is likely that a successful campaign against diving would be beneficial.  

  4. frank schoon, February 19, 2019 at 5:54 p.m.

    Why spend time on this stuff. We have to realize there are going to be situations that leaves tons  of room for interpretations...That's life, deal with it, and accept the ref's call and move on.

  5. R2 Dad replied, February 19, 2019 at 9:43 p.m.

    Well, Frank, because England is in the middle of this witchhunt, and MLS just hired Howard Webb (ex-PGMOL) I have a concern that witchhunt will travel across the pond and land in MLS. Maybe this isn't on Carlos' agenda but it's certainly something I will be tracking this year.

  6. Bob Ashpole, February 19, 2019 at 8:03 p.m.

    What I notice is that the attacker was moving away from the goal as was the ball. Why isn't this dicussed? IMO awarding a penalty on a play that had no immediate chance of scoring would have been very harsh. I don't see the need to get upset with an official doing his best.

  7. uffe gustafsson, February 19, 2019 at 8:24 p.m.

    Frank I’m totally in your court.
    to much ado with things in a game that never will be controlled. As in the past things always even out in long run. And honestly the yellow card could been held in his pocket. Keep yellow card for what they call taken it for the team on foaling on a counter attack, that to me is way worse, or dangerous tackling.
    var I like but only when they see obvious things that refs misses. Not the inch of a offside.
    but clear misses.

  8. frank schoon, February 20, 2019 at 9:10 a.m.

    Guys, remember the days, which wasn't all that long ago, when the only ref call questioned was the one in the WC'66 if the goal by the English on the goal line or inside and later the call in the WC'74  whether the German Holzenbein was tripped in the Dutch penalty area or not (Holzenbein finally admitted he dove). These 2 were the most prominently discussed in past 50years. Notice the rarity questionalble calls of pre-VAR and  now in the post-VAR  every week we're having discussion about ref calls...The VAR has somehow created an atmosphere in which everything is questioned, in which even the VAR can not be of use. In Holland ,those who thought the VAR would definitely be addition to the game are not so certain anymore and beginning to have second thoughts.
     Allow the VAR for goalline issues and nothing else, for that was the original intention and allow the ref to make, right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, and leave it at that. I'm not interested in how the sausage was made,just let me enjoy it....

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, February 20, 2019 at 9:05 p.m.

    You make a good point about the goal line issue. I think the best answer is simply to add assistants to watch the goal lines. It would not add any new technology and build on the many years of experience with assistants. If officials are in good positions to make calls, then we should just accept that human error cannot be eliminated, just minimized.

  10. frank schoon replied, February 21, 2019 at 8:14 a.m.

    Bob, we had put extra assistant behind the goals and the effects have really added nothing to the game as far as improving the calls. We have time to step away right now from the extra visual aids and allow the game to be played and called the way it once was and just keep it simple warts, farts and all.

  11. beautiful game, February 21, 2019 at 4:57 p.m.

    Excellent article on the pros/cons of the call in question. IMHO, every game that is suspected of having had a "dive" should be investigated post game by a panel of three; and if it is deemed a wanton dive by 2 out of 3 judges, the player should be fined and suspended for three games. Enforcement of this cancer in the game is a must. 

  12. frank schoon replied, February 21, 2019 at 6:10 p.m.

    BG,  since it open to interpretation both  could be wrong as well. Leave it alone soccer has done just fine with all the hiccups,but what you're suggesting is to add more problems.

  13. beautiful game, February 23, 2019 at 9:31 p.m.

    Frank S... a slow-mo review can determine without a doubt if there was conatct....I'm talking about a post-game review after the fact of a suspected dive. Leaving it as it is, is a blessing for divers, if no serious punishment is assessed. This is not VAR during the game, it's adjudication with disposition 48 hours after the game. Interpretation has nothing to do with it. 

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