Right now, the Daily Mail is leading with four stories on today’s Copa Del Rey final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is how we know it’s a big deal. Real Madrid face a Barcelona in canned crisis, while Carlo Ancelotti are without Cristiano Ronaldo, opening up the requisite British angle with the heart-shaping Welsh anime character Gareth Bale.
This means a lot of English journalists and fans will witness Pepe and Busquets attempting to lessen our collective faith in humanity in their quest to win a football match. There will be Tweets about “rolling around on the carpet,” and about simulation and Spanish football and staying on your feet and the same, stale debate which continues to permeate football, and define it outside its confines, particularly in America.
It seems Gary Neville is tired of this moralism. Last night on Sky, the former Manchester United defender railed on West Ham’s Matt Jarvis for failing to fall on the ground when challenged in the box against Arsenal.
The video has been taken down, but 101GG has the transcript:
He should have gone down. Well done, your team haven’t won a game.
You can either be an angel and do what Matt Jarvis did and get a pat on the back off his Nan when he goes home tonight, or he can win his team a penalty.
The referee won’t give it if you don’t go down. Sam [Allardyce] said it, if you don’t go down you don’t get a penalty. It’s a foul.
I suppose in some ways people can say ‘It’s disappointing to hear you say that Gary’ – well then, be disappointed because ultimately that’s the game.
What can one write about diving that hasn’t already been written? Disregard that: h
ere’s a quick lesson about football:
1. It is very low scoring compared to other “team invasion” sports.
2. Clear cut chances, like that of a player taking a spot kick, come at a premium even in the best of times.
3. Referees are naturally reticent to award fouls in the box, because penalties convert at around 70%, and goals completely change games.
4. This means that even if a player is technically impeded in the 18, chances are if they doesn’t go to ground they’re not going to get a call (Allardyce was right!)
5. “Real vs simulated fouls” is not a real binary. Embellishment might mean something as simple as an extra roll on the floor after a legit foul.
6. What constitutes a “true” foul is in many ways subjective, despite deep post-match TV hermeneutics.
6. Players who are obvious divers are also bad divers. The point is not to get caught.
7. Defenders also “simulate,” particularly when it comes to disguising shirt pulling, raising their hand when an opposing player is onside, calling a goal kick even when the ball clearly last came off a defender, elbowing, hair pulling, you name it.
8. In fact, deception and subterfuge are all built into the sport in any number of ways.
So, there are two ways of looking at diving. One is to see it as a “moral issue”, and that doesn’t just mean the view that players who do it are bad and players who don’t do it are good. Neville’s take for example is also on the moral spectrum: players are morally obligated to dive because “winning is everything.”
There is another way to see simulation, however: the inevitable result of football simply being the sport that it is. Diving, rather than a moral choice, is a heuristic response to the circumstances of any given football match. You can try to resist it, but there will always be a tendency to go to ground with goals as valuable as they are. Diving for pens is just the extreme end of a spectrum of deceit which also includes moving the ball in free kicks and falsely claiming throw-ins.
I prefer the latter view (in case there was any doubt), simply because anything that gets this tired “debate” out of the headlines is a good thing.