Following the halftime whistle during the first leg of the 2011 Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Penarol, Santos forward Neymar told some members of the media that he might not come back out after the restart. The then-19-year-old forward had taken significant physical abuse during the opening 45 minutes and on one occasion had been booked for diving by leading South American referee Carlos Amarilla.
Santos manager Muricy Ramalho also vocalised his displeasure with Penarol’s physical approach, telling reporters that if Amarilla was so eager to have Neymar removed he’d just as soon sub him off during the break. The protestations seemed to work, as Neymar was on the field when the second half began and enjoyed, in Penarol’s view, the protection of the officials for the remainder of the match. They lodged a formal complaint with CONMEBOL after the 0-0 draw.
Diving, the incident once again revealed, is never as straightforward as the simple act of flopping to the surface. There are mind games involved and cultural factors at play, and like most elements of football some contextualisation is required before coming to grips with what diving actually is. A debate about simulation is all well and good, but without nuance the arguments against diving and for harsh punishment sound more of griping than discourse.
That said, it’s never a bad time to have this discussion. The crusaders who view diving as football’s existential evil have important points to make, and they’re not incorrect when they liken simulation to cheating. Much of it is exactly that, and Luis Suarez is its poster-boy.
Earlier this month Suarez drew the ire of world football’s governing body when he quite disgracefully crumpled to the ground in search of a penalty against Stoke. FIFA vice president Jim Boyce described the Liverpool forward’s antics as “nothing less than cheating,” adding that diving was “becoming a cancer within the game. If it’s clear it’s simulation,” he said, “they should be severely punished.”
If only clarity was not only attainable, but in many cases quantifiable.
Incidents like that involving Suarez at Anfield are clear enough, and as Stoke manager Tony Pulis said after the match perhaps a three-match ban would serve as a detriment going forward. Boyce is of a similar mind and believes disciplinary committees could hand out punishments retrospectively.
“It is done so in some associations,” he said, “and I believe that is the correct thing to do. It can at times be very, very difficult for referees to judge whether something is a foul or a fair tackle, and if players are diving it makes their job even harder.”
Nothing he points out is incorrect, and there might, indeed, be some value in pursuing punishments based on video evidence if the match officials have missed a clear-cut incident, many of which will obviously occur inside the 18-yard box. But it’s when the conversation involves diving outside the area—when there is no penalty to be gained—that it gets especially convoluted. It’s here that the war on simulation becomes less precise and, in many instances, even dangerous.
“When you are in Spain and when you are young, to be able to get decisions and penalties from referees is as good a skill as being a good defender; it is not seen as cheating. It is seen as getting something back for the team. [In England] we see it as cheating.”
That comment was made by Wigan manager Roberto Martinez (I lifted it from Glenn Moore’s excellent piece in The Independent) and could quite easily be transplanted from his Spanish experience to one in Portugal, Italy, Brazil or any number of countries where pulling one over an opponent or an official is seen as a legitimate tactic employed to gain an advantage.
There’s even a name for it: Furbizia. Roughly translated as “guile,” furbizia refers to those schemes footballers can use in order to deceive a rival, a referee or even the crowd. They include everything from time-wasting to tactical fouls to verbal intimidation and, of course, diving. The point is to wind up an opponent in order to gain an advantage. A flustered, frustrated rival, after all, is easier to break down than a calm, composed adversary.
“If you make an opponent fall on his backside,” says South American football expert Tim Vickery, “you are the pawn who has become king.”
And that can be done with a series of twists and feints, a darting run past a full-back or a dive taken near a defender who has been kicking your ankles all night long.
“I remember there was a great South American—the Colombian [Faustino] Asprilla—who went to play in England,” says Vickery. “One of the things that amazed him was that one of the moments when the fans got excited was a corner, which for a Colombian is just a drag For South Americans, what excites them more is a moment of individual achievement—especially a moment of achievement that makes the opponent look ridiculous.”
Even beyond bamboozling your rival, simulation is often used for self-protection. Neymar used it against Penarol because the opposing right-back was giving him a right rollicking. “If they’re going to stop me by kicking my ankles and lunging in from behind,” the thinking goes, “I’m going to reduce their effectiveness by going to ground and earning free kicks, or even getting them booked.”
If diving is a dark art, to many football cultures the physical approach of the hardy, northern Europeans is equally evil. English footballers, for example, may not be seen as divers (although recent comments from Michael Owen would suggest they’re heading in that direction), but their physical terrorisation of their rivals can be used to gain an advantage as well. At the very least, if they don’t succeed in kicking an opponent off the park, they can intimidate him psychologically—another form of furbizia.
These are the sorts of complications that make diving so difficult to comprehend and impossible, even inadvisable, to try to eradicate. It’s a thorny, nuanced issue with wildly different interpretations in different parts of the world. And as long as football is a global game it will remain one of those elements that is rarely understood and never agreed upon.