On Diving

Listen to a s0ccer-hating American complain about football, and you find that several complaints come up again and again.  “It’s boring!”  “There’s not enough scoring!”  “The players go down without being touched!”

Football is far from boring.  Nevertheless, learning any sport is like learning a new language.  Without a basic grasp of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, what you hear makes no sense.  The Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature the world has ever known, but listening to a recitation of The Iliad in ancient Greek makes no sense unless you (a) are ancient Greek; or (b) know ancient Greek.  It’s the same with football.  Although the game looks simple, that appearance is deceptive.  Even with some basic knowledge, football can still be impenetrable because of the history, culture, rivalries, and tradition that are integral to the sport. It takes time and effort to learn football, but once you learn even scoreless draws can be tense and exciting.  (Or they can be boring, as individual games in any sport can be.)

Diving though is a more complicated topic, or at least it should be.  The perception of diving changes depending on where you live and enjoy the sport.  The English, for example, despise diving.  In the Latin countries, diving is not castigated so much.  The Italians are infamous for diving, as are the Spanish.  (This is a humorous but generally accurate depiction of how the English see the rest of Europe.  Notice who are the divers.  Subscription may be required.)  Diving is also fairly common in South America, especially Brazil.  Despite a move to Europe, Robinho still down at the slightest touch, and Neymar is following in his footsteps.

I do not write to defend diving, at least not entirely.  I do not really enjoy watching the deceit, the overacting, and the downright bad sportsmanship of diving.  But this is because I am American, and my outlook has been shaped by and American reaction to diving.  In many ways, the American football fan considers himself the younger brother of the English fan.  It makes sense; the cultural and linguistic ties make it far easier for the American to enter the game through England and the EPL than any other major world football power.  (It is a little surprising though, given how much less impatient American fans are when there is similar playacting in the other major American sports, such as basketball and American football.)

Nevertheless, diving is not the hand-wringing evil that the British press makes it out to be.  There are many ways to cheat in football, and it’s only cheating when your team was wronged.  (To wit, had Gary Linker scored the Hand of God goal instead of Diego Maradona, one can imagine that the English fans would laugh about how their boys pulled one over on “the Argies” while Argentinian fans would still be complaining about the cheating English.)

In my opinion, the worst form of cheating the method of stopping the team not through on-field superiority, but rather by aggressive fouling and constant disruption of play.  The reason this is such a horrid form of cheating is because (1) there is no on-field way to overcome that; and (2) it destroys the flow of the game–the very reason why people watch in the first place.  When a side with superior talent faces such tactics, there is no other alternative but to dive.  The more the referee disciplines the cheating side, the more that side is forced to play the game.  Diving forces the referee to act (although diving is also a punishable offense.)

The English do not understand this.  Diving offends their sensibilities and their ideal of fair play.  While they claim to hate tough, fouling sides, that does not offend them as much.  In fact, such a team may be lauded for how tough it is.  (Stoke City is the quintessential example.  While not may like Stoke exactly, they held up as the paradigm of the toughness of English football.)

While I can not give a definitive answer as to why the English feel this way, I imagine it has something to do with the game’s origins.  Since its inception, football in England was very violent sport.  English kings tried very hard throughout the years to suppress this proto-football game but with little success.  The Industrial Revolution succeeded where the English kings failed and as the poor moved from small towns to overcrowded cities, the game was virtually eliminated.  The British public schools saved it, as headmasters adopted it as a way to exhaust their rioting students by having them take their aggression out on each other rather than on the faculty and local townspeople.  The games were very violent, a test of manhood, “Muscular Christianity.”

There are still remnants of that violence in the modern game, but more so in its various cousins such as rugby and the various football codes of the United States, Australia, and Ireland.  (The rugby code was created, for among other reasons, to keep that violence that the Football Association outlawed.)  In South America though, it is the skill rather than the muscle that is prized.  Furthermore, authority is distrusted rather than respected.  Therefore, a successful dive not only strikes out against an opponent who is stopping beautiful play, it also is a way of deceiving the authority figure.

The greatest exponent of this ultra-defensive, fouling play in the current era is Jose Mourinho, although he would surely resent that depiction (and, although he will not admit it, he is not above getting his players to dive.)  Like Helenio Herrera before him, Mourinho uses such tactics to great effect.  Herrera’s catenaccio has, almost since its beginnings, become shorthand for everything wrong with defensive play.  Which brings us to the football wars that Real Madrid and Barcelona engaged in this past season.

The roots of this war lay with Mourinho and Chelsea.  As Chelsea manager, Mourinho was heavily criticized for his (very successful) defensive tactics.  Chelsea won titles, but they sucked the joy out of the sport.  When Chelsea met Barcelona in the Champions League, Mourinho used those same tactics on the Blaugrana, thus earning a man who was once a well-liked Barcelona assistant coach the eternal enmity of the cules.  The next year, Barcelona exacted revenge en route to a Champions League victory.  Two years ago, a Mourinho-less (but still extremely defensive) Chelsea nearly derailed Barcelona, before the Blaugrana finally moved on thanks to the 11th hour goal of Andres Iniesta, and lots of complaints about the referee.  Last year, Mourinho practiced his dark arts at Inter, and brought them the treble, beating Barcelona in the semifinals.

Each time they met, Barcelona were the better side.  Mourinho (and the Mourinho-less Chelsea) stifled Barcelona’s attack only through antifutbol and fouling.  The idea was that if Barcelona were allowed to play, Barcelona would win.  Therefore stop them from playing by any means necessary, and to hell what it does to viewing pleasure.

The truth is that using such tactics is actually a very risky strategy.  It involved a lot of contact, fouling, violence, and frankly, cheating.  There was more contact with the Barcelona players than with the ball.  As a result, players on Chelsea, Inter, and Madrid were red-carded for their on-field actions.  Which is not to say Barcelona were innocent victims.  They adapted their game, and engaged in their own cheating: diving.  Diving fits into their game though, because while Barcelona can out-skill anyone, they lack the physicality of other top sides.  Because of that size disparity, Barcelona’s diving is a way of fighting fire with fire.  And as with their tiki-taka, Barcelona are very good at what they do.

The pressure from this year seems to have sent Mourinho over the edge (and it clearly wore on Guardiola.)  He has ranted and raved about conspiracies, while the Madrid papers dutifully followed suit.  For the first time, diving became an issue in La Liga.  The fact that diving is now as issue is less about a dislike of diving, than the fallout of Barcelona’s recent domination of Real Madrid.  The truth is that the Madrid fans and the media do not see diving as an evil; if they did, they would howl about Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the sport’s greatest actors.  What Mourinho and the Madrid papers hate is that diving gives Barcelona an effective way to combat Real Madrid’s stifling tactics.

The irony is that while diving is not an evil in the Spanish game, Mourinho-type tactics are.  It is why many in the Real Madrid hierarchy (Di Stefano, Valdano, Butragueño, and the disgraced former president Calderon) hate Mourinho, and spoke out against him.  Had Mourinho been the manager at any other club, or if Madrid had been more successful over the past few years, the Madrid papers would be calling for his head.

This is why I do not understand the hysteria over diving.  Like many things in football, it is all about where you are from.  It’s as much a tactic as anything else, a darker tactic and one to be used only in the case of emergency, but a tactic nonetheless.  Love it, hate it, it’s not going anywhere.  Therefore, one might as well understand it.