TYSON HILGENBERG - Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Diving in soccer has taken on a life of its own. It has evolved into a living and breathing organism, as much a part of the game as the players themselves.
Diving (or simulation) has always been prevalent, but in recent years has gone from occasional instances to normalcy. It has become an expected part of the game; a part of the culture.
Soccer might be a bright sport, but bright lights mean dark shadows.
That is where diving dwells. It is part of the beautiful game; known to exist (even embraced in some cases) but cursed and disavowed in the public eye. In South America, however, it is often deemed a victory if you can trick the referee. It is considered a strategic move. Some coaches even teach it.
The problem is that that sort of "acceptance" will always allow it to prevail, even at the highest level. Those few who embrace it, or simply tolerate it by turning a blind eye, will continue to give it value.
The reward is currently greater than the risk. That needs to change.
Diving affects all players, whether they are involved directly or not. It can affect the final outcome of a game, or it can change the way a referee calls the next game, therefore affecting players not involved in the original event. It also adversely affects the fans. More importantly it affects the game of soccer, especially in the US.
Diving will only cripple the progression of soccer in a country where it fights for attention from a nation that gorges on football, baseball and basketball. It gets no respect from American sports fans, and it has no place in soccer. Why then does it maintain some foothold in other parts of the world? Why, when the media and club personnel, especially in England, lambast the act, does it continue to take place? Why haven't they started fining players as Major League Soccer claims to do?
There is an opinion among private circles and among some pundits that coming down too hard on diving would stifle the creativity of the sport and that it might make those flair players think twice before taking on another player.
Those creative flair players know that with any touch from the defender, or apparent touch, they can go down and get the foul. In some ways, it makes sense to call the game this way. It makes dribbling through three defenders a possibility, something exciting for the fans. A trick and a step-over and fans cheer and post the clip to YouTube.
If the player can't finesse his way through the defense, he can simply draw the foul, or flail violently to the ground without as much as a touch and win a free kick. It's a win-win for everyone involved-right?
This nitpicking form of officiating has become a mandate for referees in recent years, especially in UEFA-sanctioned events, where they have been told to call it tight by calling attention to every touch, supposedly to protect players and cut back on injuries.
Although advertised as such, we all know it is really meant as a way to allow the beautiful game to unfold and get fans in the seats. It is an attempt to make the game more entertaining; to give the Cristiano Ronaldos of the world acres of space to perform their logic-defying trickery. Defenders simply choose to avoid the trick-riddled paths of players like him because they know at the slightest of touch he's crumpling to the ground.
As a result, diving was re-introduced, at least as something acceptable-of course, only if executed well and with all the dramatic grasping of limbs and writhing on the ground. However, if it's egregious or badly performed, like the superman flop earlier in the season by Luis Suarez, those same supporters will throw you under the bus in a second. If are wondering which Luis Suarez dive I'm referencing...well, then.
Diving has become a stain on the game that just won't go away.
In the Premier League it is less frequent, at least when compared to La Liga or Serie A. Lately though, even in England it has become an issue, almost an epidemic. So much so that it has skyrocketed to the foreground of the sport, actually deciding games, creating public outrage, while at times still being blatantly missed or (maybe in actuality) allowed. It's a definite problem that clearly has polarizing views.
The quality of play seems to be a major factor in the proliferation of diving. It's the difference between diving in Europe and the lack of diving in the US, or more specifically MLS.
Diving is almost a byproduct of excellence; an outcome of pace, of doing what it takes to beat the best in the world. Granted, it's hideous and shouldn't take place, but in some ways it's the pace of the game that creates the problem. MLS doesn't have that problem, at least, not yet. American fans wouldn't stand for it anyway. MLS has taken a strong stance against it, but it wasn't really ever a problem here. The players that might consider a dive in Europe are good enough to stay on their feet and still beat the defenders in MLS.
The problem is multi-faceted and nuanced, making it difficult for the part-time soccer viewer or casual American sports fan to understand. In a country where the most popular sport is one that demands full-on contact and PED-influenced strength, soccer is surely dealt a tough card.
But is it simply the lack of pace in MLS or is something about the way American players are brought up? The way fans wouldn't stand for it?
If you look at any of the American players in Europe you'd be hard pressed to find even one that's ever been accused of diving and definitely not one that has a reputation for diving. It could also be argued that part of the reason is that very few of the American players in Europe are of the flair variety, Clint Dempsey being the closest, at least of the well known players.
You could argue that Jose Torres, currently playing in Mexico, is a flair type player. But, neither Dempsey nor Torres has a reputation for diving. Of course Torres didn't grow up only playing in the states, so his soccer background is much more varied than Dempsey's all-American upbringing in Texas. Many of the American players at the highest level have a varied playing background in multiple countries, so it's difficult to narrow down how a player learns to dive, or not to.
It's definitely not accepted in America, but a player's culture and upbringing certainly has some bearing. In mid-January Suarez finally admitted to diving. The admission came a couple of months after his appalling flop against Stoke City-a dive Stoke City Manager, Tony Pulis, publicly and rightly called "an embarrassment."
Suarez conceded he went to the ground deliberately and explained that it's a cultural thing and that South Americans have different behaviors.
It should be pointed out that it's not only South Americans. Diving happens as frequently in Europe as it does in South America, but it's definitely not embraced and accepted as much as it is in many South American nations.
In the end, diving is all about gaining an advantage. It is not something easily officiated, and it is not something technically outlawed in the rulebook. If anything, it is something that players have learned they can exploit.
A grey area, if you will.
It's a skill they've perfected. You could argue that it is players finding new ways to win, to excel within the rules.
Twenty years ago, the game was far more physical, especially in England. Now it has evolved into much more of a finesse game, still with a level of physicality. The Premier League, though, has held onto the brute nature of the game more than any other league. Therefore, many American players find a place in the Premier League or the German Bundesliga for that matter, because that element of strength is still important, although less and less every year.
For example, Stoke City acquired two more hard-nosed American players this year in Maurice Edu and Geoff Cameron. They are both solid defending players of big stature. Then, at the end of the winter transfer window, they secured the services of yet another American in Brek Shea.
With Stoke's physical style of play it seems like a good fit for American players. Not that it has to be one or the other, but it says something about how American soccer players are perceived-that they would fit into a team of that style, with a manager like Pulis, who has been adamantly outspoken against diving and simulation.
Many sports fans in the US still scoff at soccer and consider it a sport of second-rate athletes and diving is not helping. The big Premier League games on ESPN are great. But when a silly act of theatre takes place and accidentally catches the eyeballs of an American sports fan waiting for the Georgia versus Florida college football game, it only further tarnishes the image of soccer in the US.
Giant, muscular basketball players flail and collapse to the hardwood with the brush of finger, but it's often not equated as equal to diving in soccer. Some could claim it doesn't matter what American sports fans think about soccer. They either like it or they don't. Why worry about the image of the sport?
Soccer and America are a combination that at times feels like oil and water. They can coexist in the same area, but never mix well. Diving is definitely one of the aspects keeping them apart.
A game as interpretive and creative as soccer will always have grey areas and dark shadows. But, it is time that diving is officially dragged out of the shadows and made to face judgment.