In the final moments of Monday’s World Cup match between Italy and Australia, Italian defender Fabio Grosso streaked up the left side toward the goal. He shrugged off one defender who tried to drag him down, then cut into the penalty area. Desperate to stop him, Australia’s Lucas Neill slid into his path. Grosso made contact with Neill’s prone body and sprawled onto the ground. The referee blew the whistle: penalty.
The Italians made the shot and won the game, 1-0. Fans of the Socceroos are now crying foul, saying Grosso fell on purpose to draw the penalty. After watching numerous replays, I agree that the Italian fell to the ground too easily. The referee still made the right call. This World Cup has inspired a mass of editorial bile about the evils of diving. But diving is not only an integral part of soccer, it’s actually good for the sport.
Soccer players fall to the ground without being dragged down or tripped. Once they’re on the ground, they often roll around on and exaggerate their injuries. A lot of people hate these theatrics and even characterize them as immoral. Dave Eggers recently said in Slate that flopping is “a combination of acting, lying, begging, and cheating.” But diving is far from outright cheating. Rarely do athletes tumble without being touched at all. Usually, they embellish contact to make sure the referee notices a foul, not to deceive him completely.
Obvious, undeserved flops should be punished with yellow cards. Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan was justly ejected (on his second yellow) from Tuesday’s match with Brazil when he fell without a Brazilian in sight. Such displays serve to discredit more honest, contact-driven divers like Grosso. Diving is like drawing a charge in basketball. When it is done well, it is a subtle (and precarious) art.
Consider the classic matchup between a skilled dribbler and a big, tough defender. The attacker must use his quickness and wit to get by. The bigger man, though, can always resort to a “professional foul”—an intentional foul in which there is no attempt to play the ball. The defender will give away a free kick, but that will hurt only in certain parts of the field. So, what is the attacker to do? If he finds a flailing leg in his way, he can do nothing except barge right into it. And maybe writhe around on the ground for a bit, encouraging the referee to hand out a card, thus discouraging the brutish defender from trying such rough tactics in the future.
Far from being a sign of corruption, diving is, in certain ways, a civilizing influence. Divers are usually quicker, smaller players. As athletes get bigger and stronger, the little guy gets nudged aside. If professional fouls and brute force reign supreme, creative play and joyful improvisation will suffer.
FIFA doesn’t see it this way. Prior to this year’s World Cup, the organization issued special instructions to referees to crack down on “simulation.” This misguided initiative has failed miserably. We’ve had more flopping than ever despite a record number of yellow cards and ejections.
Referees are partly responsible for the culture of diving. Officials are much more likely to blow their whistles when they see a few somersaults, and players know they might not get a call if they stay on their feet. But in soccer there is only one main referee patrolling a pitch that measures up to 120 by 80 yards. He cannot see everything, and diving is particularly hard to discern. Even with the benefit of slow-motion replays, it’s sometimes difficult to tell a flop from a “natural” fall.
The scorn heaped on divers usually doesn’t have to do with the logistics of refereeing, though. In reality, it’s distaste for the spectacle. American sports are loaded with comic set pieces—a hockey player tossing his gloves for a ceremonial tussle or a baseball manager kicking dirt at the umpire. Like tumbling soccer players, these performers act to provoke sympathy or indignation. The difference is in the style of emotional drama.
In most American sports, the theatrics are aggressive. They are not operatic displays of vulnerability. To appreciate diving, we must sympathize or scorn the injured player—we must get into the melodrama. Some fans are afraid to take the plunge, preferring to argue that diving makes soccer players seem like babies or, worse still, women. (Former England striker Gary Lineker has called for a special “pink card” to be shown to divers.) Their distaste for the dive is rooted in an idea of masculinity, not in an analysis of the game itself. That idea of masculinity is preventing them from enjoying a pretty good show.
The other most pervasive critique of diving is a nationalist one. Depending on who you talk to, Sunday’s flop-heavy, four-red-card debacle between the Netherlands and Portugal was the fault of either Iberian gamesmanship or Dutch fakery. For Anglo-American commentators, crusades against floppers are often laced with a distrust of wily, olive-skinned outsiders. In March, the London Times initiated a campaign to “kick out the cheats.” Playacting was said to have infiltrated English soccer from outside. “It’s crept into our game lately, but it is a foreign thing,” Alan Stubbs, an Everton defender, recently remarked. “They speak good English, it’s not as if they don’t understand what they’re doing.”
Whether or not you must know English to understand what you’re doing, diving is hardly a recent conspiracy cooked up in southern climes. Reports of flopping go back to the early days of the sport, and—surprise!—Brits have been influential in its development. Manchester City striker Francis Lee, for example, was one of the first great divers of the television era. He won theatrical penalties in the 1960s and 1970s, long before the famed Argentine flopper Diego Simeone took his first fall. Fans who champion the “fair play” and the “work ethic” of traditional English soccer tend to overlook the dives of skilled English players like Michael Owen.
There is nothing more depressing than a player who goes to the ground when he might have scored. Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, arguably the world’s best players, will stay on their feet at all cost for the sake of a beautiful pass or a brilliant run at the goal. But the next time you see an artful dribbler derailed by a clumsy oaf, take a minute to think about whose side you’re on. Doesn’t the dribbler deserve a somersault or two to remind the world that the only way to stop him is through violent and graceless means?