by Jack Howes
Britain is a very nostalgic nation. Many people in the UK long for the old days, when Britain ruled a quarter of the world and to quote Edmund Blackadder ‘if you saw someone in a skirt you shot him and took his country’. The days when everyone supposedly ‘knew their place’, working class people were little more than walking talking coat pegs and British people didn’t have many basic human rights that we take for granted today.
This blinkered view of the past, probably fuelled by the fact Britain hasn’t been invaded since 1066, exists in football.
Watch modern football coverage of what the sport was like in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. When fans were corralled in cages like animals, players could on the pitch kick, punch, fight, break legs without so much as a stern look from the referee and the game was appallingly run by officials with no regard for anyone but themselves, just as much if not more so than today.
These days are largely remembered with fondness. ‘Chopper’ Harris kicking lumps out of opponents? People chuckle at the memory of it. Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan duking it out on the pitch at Wembley? Lolz. All those books about football hooliganism where ‘fans’ (hooligans) reminisce about the time they banded together and ‘took’ (i.e fought) the home section at grounds? A hearty laugh at those good ol’ days. Because fans taking other teams sections’ of a ground was all harmless fun and never led, directly or indirectly, to the disasters that saw hundreds of fans needlessly die attending football matches. Of course not.
That’s not to say that football was terrible in the old days or that people didn’t enjoy themselves. Football always has been and always will be a wonderful sport. But this constant hankering for the past is both silly and hypocritical, not to mention a longing for the old days making you sound like the Daily Mail (and no one wants to sound like the Daily Mail). This nostalgia is at its most hypocritical when it comes to the thorny issue of players diving.
Listen to an ex-player and you’d think diving was something that never existed in football until dirty rotten foreigners turned up when the Premier League sometime in the 1990’s and started tumbling around the place. This is nonsense. In the 60’s and 70’s Francis Lee was notorious for not only diving but doing comedy falls more fitting in a Morecambe and Wise sketch. John Charles had a reputation for diving. Even Pele has admitted his response to being kicked out of the 1962 and 1966 World Cups was to commit ‘simulation’.
To say it’s a modern phenomenon is rubbish. To suggest foreign players dive more than British ones as Sir Alex Ferguson said last week is treading on dangerous ground, especially as in the last season or two many of the Premier League’s worst divers have been British while the European Championships in the summer had refreshingly little rolling around on the floor.
Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Gareth Bale have each on several separate occasions in the recent past ‘anticipated contact’ i.e obviously dived. Not to mention Michael Owen in successive World Cups against Argentina tripping over invisible legs, or the amount of times Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have at the slightest provocation fallen over and won their team penalties and free kicks. Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Pires have plenty of British company when it comes to attempting (laughably so in the case of Suarez’s buckaroo style fall against Stoke) to con referees.
Not only is there hypocrisy and simply incorrect talk about diving, but the sheer anger and controversy diving in football inspires is hyperbolic and stupid.
On the same day that Suarez and Bale committed two of the worst dives seen since Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board there was some savage acts on the pitch. Robin van Persie elbowed Yohan Cabaye in the face, Robert Huth stamped on Suarez while appealing to the referee about a free kick (a feat in itself) while Cheick Tiote stamped on Tom Cleverley. All should have been red card offences, all of which were capable of causing severe injury.
‘Simulation’ isn’t going to hurt anyone. It’s not going to cause an injury, put a player out of the game for days, weeks, months, perhaps even end a career, not like a bad tackle can. Tiote’s tackle could have left Tom Cleverley’s ankle looking like Eduardo’s when he broke it playing for Arsenal if Cleverley’s ankle had been planted in the turf. Van Persie’s elbow could have left Cabaye’s face looking like Gary Mabbutt’s when a John Fashanu elbow left him with a broken skull.
Play acting and falling over invisible legs and arms may be an ugly side of the game, but it’s nothing like as bad as the sort of studs-up, two footed tackle that in Andy Townsend’s world is ‘going for the ball’. It doesn’t inflict injury or put players’ safety at risk.
Diving is a form of cheating. But it’s no different to player claiming a throw-in when they know the ball hit them last, blocking off a player to stop a counter-attack, nudging someone in the back to stop an opponent jumping for a header or walking off a pitch slowly to waste time when hanging on desperately to a slender lead. They are all forms of cheating. But while diving is seen as un-British and a scourge of the modern game, no manager is for example proposing three-match bans for players blatantly time wasting in matches.
That’s not to say diving isn’t an issue. It is, and should be met with bookings from referees and perhaps suspensions for repeat offenders. But the hysteria about it is ridiculous, not to mention the myths, lies and half-truths that surround the culture of diving in the first place. Bad tackles, other forms of cheating, goal-line technology are problems more severe and more deserving of attention than diving.