A number of incidents over recent weeks have brought the issue of diving back into the limelight and the British media’s reaction has underlined the hypocrisy in the way they treat the concept of cheating within football. Diving is widely condemned as unsporting, cheating and a general blight on the game. All of which would be fine, if the same attitude was applied to other aspects of cheating that are usually overlooked.
The most glaring example of this is the tactical foul. Cynically chopping down an opponent on the half way line for the purpose of nipping a counter attack in the bud is blatantly cheating. A player intentionally breaks the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage for his side. And yet this action is universally applauded as ‘taking one for the team’; heralded as a gamesmanship rather than rule-breaking.
Compare this reaction to that of the Match of the Day punditry team to Stephane Sessegnon’s dive at the weekend in West Brom’s game vs Southampton. Commentator Steve Wilson bleated “That’s a *terrible* dive. I hope someone at West Brom has a word with because that’s awful”, admonishing him as if discovering that Steph had done a shit in his pillowcase. This was followed by Alan Shearer going one further:
“He got booked for it and rightly so. This is where the FA should be able to look at that and ban him. Because there’s no debate about that: it’s cheating. Diving. 100% unacceptable. There’s no contact, it’s pure and simple cheating”
As Shearer, with all the personality of a packet of damp Sainsbury’s Basics plain digestive biscuits, cries for Sessegnon to be banned for taking a dive, Gary Lineker and Ruud Gullit nod approvingly and agree. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was a consistent attitude applied to the way players cheat to gain an advantage, if we didn’t have to listen to Martin Keown talk about how Lee Dixon should have “taken out” Ryan Giggs before he scored *that* FA Cup Semi-final goal or listen to Phil Neville claim that he would have two-footed someone.
So why does this attitude prevail? Why is there a double standard? Why is there this distinction between what is cheating and what is gamesmanship?
Well, one reason is the underlying xenophobia of British football. You only have to look at the response to a similar incident a few days later during the highlights of the midweek round of fixtures. As Jack Rodwell raced onto a loose ball he threw himself to the ground to try and win a penalty as Alex Bruce pulled out of the challenge. Rodwell’s attempt lit the fuse on the touchline which resulted in the fourth official having to prevent Steve Bruce from mounting Gus Poyet like a rutting bullfrog. While both Sessegnon and Rodwell’s dives were equally unconvincing efforts to simulate contact to get a decision in their favour, the response to their actions was not equal.
Sessegnon was met with cries of outrage and disgust, whereas Rodwell was largely glossed over. To his credit Phillip Neville did question Rowell’s actions, if only to ask why he would choose to go down when he was through on goal. However there was no finger-pointing, no call for a ban, no wish for someone to “have a word”. This hypocrisy is symptomatic of the perception that diving is a foreign problem – a tropical disease that has taken root in our game due to the mass influx of international players to England’s top flight.
The notion that diving didn’t happen in the years before the Premier League era is ridiculous and demonising foreign players for introducing this into the game is reflective of football’s resistance to change and is indicative of residual xenophobic feelings about non-British players. Despite the fact that British players are consistently guilty of diving they are rarely [if ever] exposed to the same levels of scrutiny as foreign players are. There is a double standard here, too.
While potential xenophobic undertones explain why diving is so heavily criticised, it doesn’t explain why tactical fouling is given a free pass. Why is it acceptable to intentionally foul an opponent in order to pre-emptively stop a goal-scoring opportunity from developing?
The toxic culture of masculinity that still exists around football probably goes some way towards explaining this. Watch any game and at some point you will hear a commentator mention that “tackling is a dying art” or that “twenty years ago that wouldn’t have even been a foul” as a player routinely cuts his opponent in half with an uncontrolled challenge. There is inevitable whining about how football is “a man’s game” and that players should “get up and get on with it” after they’ve mercilessly been fouled. Apparently kicking lumps out of one another is what constitutes manhood to the majority of football fans. It is this belief that means that it is more acceptable for a lumbering holding midfield to physically impede a fleet-footed winger, in the knowledge that he can’t match his opponent’s pace or trickery within the bounds of law than it is for a player to use his guile to capitalise on a clumsy challenge by a defender. You need only look at the way that football romanticises figures such as Ron “Chopper” Harris or Neil “Razor” Ruddock – players who were renowned for brutal challenges on opposition players that they couldn’t match mentally or technically so they had to resort to levelling the playing field with extreme physicality.
One of the most iconic images in British football further underscores this. Terry Butcher, battered and bandaged, bloodied and bruised on the battlefield.
He is revered for putting himself on the line and the way he is viewed through the lens of nostalgia is what feeds the misguided idea that what makes football a man’s game is both being hurt and being willing to hurt
others. Football has evolved to the point where it is pseudo-science, with an ever increasing emphasis on tactics and data analysis. This is where England is so far behind in terms of world football – we still view the game as a predominantly physical one rather than a mental one.
It is this desperate clinging onto the halcyon days of knee-high tackles and the romanticised image of the ‘hardman’ that means that a tactical foul is deemed to be an ugly, but necessary act of sportsmanship but diving is considered to be outright cheating and worthy of outrage/banning. Shearer unintentionally undermined his own argument by pointing out that Sessegnon had been punished and rightfully so. However, calling for further action from the FA is unfair when other acts of intentional rule-breaking are not held to the same standards. They are either both acts of cheating to be deplored or they are unpleasant but effective ways of managing a game.
But British football must make up its mind; the double standard can’t persist.