“What punishment should Santi Cazorla receive for diving?” Eric Wynalda shifted his glasses and fixed his eyes on the man asking the question before coolly and calmly saying “eight games, the same as Möller.”
The Möller in question is Andreas Möller, the first player to ever be banned retroactively for a dive. It was 1995 and simulation was making the rounds as the disease du jour plaguing football. Möller was playing for Dortmund when a defender jumped to close space and then realized he might touch Möller, so he pulled out of the challenge. Möller, however, had already committed himself and in anticipation of the contact dramatically flew into the air as if his legs had been taken. A penalty was awarded by the referee, having been thoroughly conned.
Since Möller’s ban there have been other attempts to retroactively ban players for diving. UEFA tried to ban Eduardo for a dive against Celtic, but when Arsenal fought the ban, UEFA’s own referee watched the video replay, saw all the same angles of the dive as we pundits saw and said that he would have awarded the penalty anyway. The case was dropped, though the damage had been done and Eduardo’s football career in England would end at the close of that season.
Every year since I’ve been following football, pundits and fans have grown increasingly vociferous about diving. That’s why Eric Wynalda’s claim that Santi Cazorla should be banned for eight games was delivered so calmly. We’ve gotten to the point in this debate where a dive to win a penalty is now the moral equivalent to racially abusing a fellow professional.
That’s because in the last few years the conversation about diving has gone from irate to outright religious fervor. The acolytes of the retroactive ban religion started out by suggesting that yellow cards should be given for dives. The Premier League actually did start giving cards for diving at a massively increased rate. But seeing that that wasn’t stopping the players from trying to gain an advantage, the true believers then suggested that the only way to stop them was to ban retroactively for a game, and now we have Wynalda suggesting that not just one game would do but eight.
On the other side of the debate are people who fervently believe that any contact, any at all, is good enough reason to go down. These people felt buoyed by the Eduardo decision and have since spent countless hours on the internet arguing over whether the Zapruder film shows that a defender’s toe nicked a shin pad. You can see that Reid touched Cazorla, I’ve heard “because Reid’s foot moves, watch his foot, the key is in the foot. There was contact.” If there was any contact, they believe, then it’s perfectly acceptable for the offensive player to throw both legs up in the air and fall to the ground, grasping his ankle and feigning injury.
Critically, however, no one can agree on what constitutes a dive. Go ahead and try to form a consensus on the definition of a dive, you might be able to get two or three people to agree for a few weeks but there will almost certainly be an incident where disagreement will arise.
Most people will agree that when there’s no contact and a player goes down to win a penalty that it’s a dive. But what about when there is contact and the player goes down? For me there is no moral difference between a player feeling contact and pretending to be fouled and a player anticipating contact and pretending to be fouled. Both are cheating because they are both trying to con the referee into making a decision So how can one be worse than the other? Because there was no contact? Because there was slight contact?
Teams like Stoke, who live and die by set plays, dive all the time but no one ever says anything about it because so many people are bamboozled by this foolish notion that any contact at all means that any subsequent simulation is not actually simulation. In the games I’ve watched, the majority of Stoke’s set plays are generated by one of their midfielders feeling some kind of contact when they are in the opposition half and going down easily. Watch any Stoke game and tell me that you don’t think that at least one player “made a meal of that contact.” Simulation happens all the time in the Premier League and probably always has happened.
The ubiquity of this form of cheating is why I’m having a hard time getting up the gumption to pour out a spittle-flecked invective. You can be morally outraged about simulation if you like, but for me, it’s just one of many ways that teams cheat and just one of many things that are wrong with football. It’s also one of the many problems with football that could be solved simply by allowing officials to use video replay live in games. Offsides decisions, studs-up x-rated challenges, shirt pulling in the box on set plays, blocking off the keeper, dives, fouls that should have been awarded a penalty, all could be fixed simply and efficiently by allowing referees the benefit of using the same technology that the people who argue over diving use for months after.
We don’t need 8 game bans, we don’t need arguing for hours over whether there was a second shooter, and we don’t need a religious war on diving: we need referees to use video replay on all penalty decisions and for managers to be allowed too “challenge” one call per game. Do that and you’ll not only clean up the problem of simulation, but you’ll also clean up a number of other problems.
And what about that last bit about fouls that should have been awarded a penalty? As much as people complain about the occasional dive to win a penalty there are far more penalties that go un-awarded after a foul than the other way round. Which one is the bigger problem then?
Right, diving. I forgot.