I love the ESPN commercial where two of their personalities are walking in the hall and a soccer player dives in front of them. Humour can be an effective device for changing behavior; unfortunately, for soccer, Scott van Pelt’s shrug off of the diver is not near enough.
Why is diving a force in professional soccer? Simple. Players and managers have figured out that diving can give their team an advantage — either in the form of a free kick or disruption of the opponent’s rhythm. To me, it appears that some cultures are more prone to dive than others (those Spaniards!). At the same time, many brazened English and German players delight in the practice as well. Just google Ashley Young today and see what it brings up. At the same time, while I love Bayern Munich, watch them next week and count the number of times Muller goes down. It is entertainment in itself. His fall last week in the waning moments of the match against Real Madrid was beauty to all dive-loving fans. He not only went down but did the dive+ — he rolled around (flailing). You would have thought he had lost a leg. Nope. He was back up playing in a matter of seconds…full speed.
Now while Muller bugs me, they don’t bug me near as much as Real Madrid. Count next game the number of times Real players go down versus Munich. Even counting Muller’s flops, Madrid’s boys more than double the floppiness of Bayern. Why?
One writer has suggested that the Brits unwillingness to engage in such theatrics have costs them titles in the past. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper tries to explain England’s inability to win a major tournament. One point he makes is that the English players were to slow to include diving into their game. He says: “For instance, the long refusal of English players to dive may have been an admirable cultural norm, but they might have won more games if they had learned from continental Europeans how to buy the odd penalty.” Soccernomics, p. 29 (Kuper 2009).
And, until someone does something about it, youth players mimic their stars, like Ronaldo. I was watching my 8 year old play in a tournament against a Houston team Easter weekend. One particular boy for the other team had already gone down several times — always getting attention but never leaving the field. The last one sticks in my mind. He, all of 9, goes down rolling on the ground holding his leg. Then, when the game is stopped and the referee approaches (and his coach), he changes to his head. His leg was fine. Watch any professional game on a weekend, though, and you can see where they get it.
My problem with it is more philosophical. On the radio, Darren Gough, former player and radio commentator, says it is the cancer of the game. I believe, however, that is represents the worst inside individuals too. It is an example of people willing to deceive to gain an advantage. At what point in society do people engage in deception to gain advantage? In soccer, it is easy to study because films of the game and replays can determine when, in fact, it was pure deception versus real injury. I just don’t like it. Much like I don’t like people who cut in line, bypass cars in construction zones, and the like. The problem in soccer is that it seems to be beneficial. So, next week in the final leg of the semi-finals of the Champions league, enjoy counting the number of times the Madrid players go down compared to Munich. Count how many times Didier Drogba flops (even though he towers over the defenders of Barca).
At some point, UEFA needs to penalize deceiving dives post-match. If a referee can clearly determine it is fake, he can card a player. But the game is so fast it is too hard. UEFA needs to look at these events post-match like they do hard fouls. And punish the floppers. Deterrence and risk of negative consequences are the only way to curb it. Making fun of it, however clever ESPN can be, is not going far enough.