On the Diving Culture in Soccer

“Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts; football is a beastly game played by beasts.”- Henry Blaha

I drove to New Orleans with a buddy from Canada and we talked a lot of hockey. Like, I was putting together my all-time favorite team a lot (I could barely name six players I liked that weren’t named Gretsky or Lemieux). That much hockey. The classiness inherent to and ingrained in the culture of professional hockey athletes came up a lot. Stories like how Gretsky never refused an autograph request or how he respectfully treated reporters. About how my friend’s father met Gretsky’s father and, despite being the most famous father in Canada, remained humble, respectful, and for all intents a nice guy. Sure, every sport has its bad apples; but hockey seemed to have far fewer than any American sport that I followed.

My friend doesn’t watch soccer, for two reasons: he doesn’t like the “lack of offense” (that’s an argument for another article) and he hates the diving culture. I defended soccer’s apparent lack of offense with all the tenacity of a Brian Phillips or Michael Cox written article. We stalemated on that discussion. I couldn’t muster any kind of support for explaining away the diving culture in soccer. Why would he watch a sport, he asked, where it was acceptable to feign injury after injury for the purposes of disadvantaging the other team (or, in other words, act exactly the opposite of how most athletes in hockey act)? Regardless of the edge conferred in that situation, he couldn’t pay attention to a game punctuated by the constant exaggeration of little injuries. His interpretation of diving in soccer fell somewhere between cowardice and viciousness.

Before I proceed further, I want to reject the idea of a teleological or moral understanding of the difference between hockey and soccer. It would be reaching to say that soccer players are morally bankrupt for doing everything they can to help their team when within the rules of the game, even if it means faking an injury. Undoubtedly, there are those in the world for whom diving and faking an injury to disrupt the rhythm of the game or to get another player carded is simply normal. That isn’t normal in Canada, however, and it flies in the face of at least what I was taught as a kid. Judging from the way our Twitter timeline explodes during scenes like the two Champions League semi-finals clasicos last year, most of our readers would agree. But it’s worth saying that the difference here is formal, not moral. Let’s not put on our judging hats.

For someone as committed to soccer as I am, both in my opinion that it is the greatest sport on Earth and my desire to convince as many people as I can of the same, I find the diving culture perplexing and frustrating. It’s never something I’ve accepted, as much as I’ve just grown numb to. Something I’ve stopped trying to answer for in my own head, and something that most of my friends won’t bring up. Approaching it anew and seeing it from the perspective of someone who hates soccer has made me question it in my own head. As tempted as I am to take the easy road and assign blame to the individual players, it’s not that simple. Every sport is capable of having its bete noire-esque aspects (steroids in baseball, pulling and grabbing and fighting in hockey, flopping in basketball). Coaches teach players to seek every shortcut to winning, even if it means playing underhandedly.

Hockey is a good mirror for soccer, in that the rules and the continuous play allows for a fairly direct comparison. Your average winger or center could flop and dive and roll around on the ice to increase penalty minutes (or at least penalty frequency) whenever they were bumped or felt like they would lose possession. They don’t, however, and the guys who do are quickly given a talking to by their teammates. Why? It’s not the honorable or seemly thing to do. It’s not hockey to roll around on the ice or constantly look for easy penalties for advantage. I find it deplorable that soccer culture can’t just magically have the honor that hockey culture does, but I imagine it wouldn’t be easy to just ask players to stop falling acrobatically for a penalty. Sure, the player who legitimately dives without being touched is pilloried in the news, but it doesn’t change the sheer number of players who act like they might never walk again just to be sprinting the length of the field a minute later.

What’s truly silly about all this is that Messi has proven you don’t need to go flopping around to be great. In my mind, he’s the closest thing you’ll find in soccer to the culture of decency and sportsmanship you find in hockey. It’s rare to see him go down acrobatically, even when the fouls come in hard and heavy. Even when he is fouled hard, he doesn’t (often) immediately look at the ref to complain or grab the ball to make sure play stops. It’s one aspect of his greatness–but if he doesn’t feel the need to embrace falling over and rolling around grabbing your foot acrobatically, why should anyone else?

If we can’t organically change the diving culture in soccer, why not formally do so? Here’s an idea for a rule: if a player gets fouled, he has ten seconds to get to his feet. If he isn’t up by ten seconds, he will spend the rest of the half on the sidelines. The coach can then choose to sub or not, but if he does make a substitution, the injured (or “injured”) player could not come back into the game. Additionally, the referee can send a player off the field for the same length of time if he deems the player to be simulating an injury (not unlike an excessive celebration call in the NFL). Our model here would be boxing, in which the ref can call a KO based on his own discretion of whether the other player can continue. I imagine it would be impossible to get that implemented (thanks Sepp and Michel), but the goal here would be to make it unwise and disadvantageous for players to go to the ground at the lightest touch. For those players that are truly injured, they won’t be playing again anyways. For those who are faking it, they are punished.

Feasible or no, it’s an idea to provoke discussion. Is there really anyone among us who enjoys seeing players feign serious injuries? If there isn’t, why not lobby to change the rules to make it disadvantageous for players to do so?

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7 Responses to On the Diving Culture in Soccer

  1. ph7l73d says:

    You could allow players who are sent off to be substituted, so a team wouldn’t go down to 10 men unless they ran out of subs(and maybe you change the rules so they get 4 instead of 3). Part of the problem is the blunt instruments that referees have for controlling the game. Maybe if the potential benefit of diving were lessened(because you could send a player off, but not get a man advantage), you’d see less of it. But the game need not get more violent, as referees could be more free with yellow and red cards, and not worry that they would decide the game, while still punishing violent conduct. I mean that’s something you could tell referees to do.

    If we could send a player off in aWC Final into an 11-10 contest before halftime, we wouldn’t be wondering how Nigel De Jong could kick a player in the chest right in front of Howard Webb without him seeing it.

  2. Adams Sibley says:

    I think one reason diving is more appealing in soccer is that it’s more advantageous, for several reasons. In soccer more than any sport a referee’s decision can singularly change the game. Dive for a foul just outside the eighteen? Force that second yellow and gain a goalscoring opportunity! The other reason is that, more than any other sport and owing to both a lack of protective equipment and the continuous flow of the game, a lot of infractions get missed by the refs. Sometimes a dive is a way of saying “Hey, ref, if you’re going to miss the stomping over here then I’ll be theatrical until you open your eyes.”

    All in all, it’s using the system to win. Basketball players do it, too, but more subtly (because a foul in basketball requires more contact than in soccer). Two things we see all the time in the NBA is flopping to take a charge (how is this different from falling after contact in soccer?) and pushing your body in for the foul/free throws when taking an awkward one-on-one shot.

    I hate diving, too, but it’s also part of the culture. But the real shame is that the uninformed treat it as further fodder that soccer is a game for sissies. Try telling that to Cisse and his two broken legs, or to every professional player who walks off the pitch of every game covered with bruises and dents.

  3. Jim says:

    I think that its a good rule. I posted something like it on reddit that if they stay down for longer than 10-15 seconds that they would have to go off for 10 minutes. Yeah its only 10 minutes but that will still be a 10 minute 11v10 that could cause a big difference in the game for diving

    • hansh says:

      Interesting idea to send off a player for 10 minutes, but I think in general it’s a very bad idea to send off players who stay down for a certain amount of time. First of all, it wouldn’t stop people from diving – you can dive theatrically and be back on your feet quickly, and I’ve seen players do this to make it seem like they dived less.

      The even bigger problem to me, though, is that a rule like this would be hell for players who get minor injuries during the game. What if you are in a collision and you start bleeding from the head (here’s looking at you Pique!)? Players stay in the game after these types of injuries fairly often, and I wouldn’t want someone to feel like they need to get up and keep playing while their head is bleeding just so their team won’t be at a disadvantage.

      Plenty of players do come to the sideline for a moment with a fairly fake injury, but plenty also have legitimate minor injuries which take a moment to recover from, whether on the field or the touchline, and it would be very hard to punish one group and not the other.

  4. ivanomartin says:

    Isn’t the simplest solution to use post-match video analysis to determine instances of simulation (as it is already used to determine instances of violent conduct), with, say, a 5 match ban going to any offender. It is hard for me to see a situation in which the diving doesn’t disappear overnight under this system. Additionally, the referees should be freed up to call both a foul and simulation by the fouled player on the same play. I don’t see a principled difference between exaggerating the effects of contact and simulating the contact altogether.

    • Adams Sibley says:

      Interesting notion, but to me contact happens on such a spectrum that it’s not always simple to call a dive, even with video evidence. Most dives result form *some* contact, and so even if the player goes down easily, he could argue that it *was* the result of a push or pull. There are instances of dives where there is no contact whatsoever, but this is a minority of cases. The issue is, where do you draw the line between influencing a ref (going down after being shoved) versus tricking the ref (falling of your own accord)? One can be justifiably sanctioned with evidence; the other is a bit shadier.

      So post-match video analysis could be feasible in extreme instances, but if that only clears up a few obvious/egregious cases, has enough been accomplished to curb diving in general?

  5. Chaz says:

    I think the diving culture can never be fully eliminated. It is a function of two rules of the game I would never change: 1. running clock, 2. no coming back into the game after subbing out.

    Think about it: Most other sports if you pick up a “knock” you are replaced temporarily and have a minute to recover, get treatment and then come back into the game. To do that in soccer you have to put your team down a man. It makes sense to lay on the ground until the game gets stopped. So some embellishment of an injury is necessary to make sure you get the game paused. In hockey you don’t even need to wait for a stoppage to sub.

    The other point of “going to ground” easily is just smart play. When a foul is made its a foul. The problem is officials often won’t give the call without the player going to ground. I see a lot of illegal play that when the player fights through it, but still loses control of the ball, doesn’t get a whistle from the official.

    The one thing that I think needs to stop is when a player goes to ground because of a real foul, but then proceeds to cry out in pain and roll around the field like someone just broke their leg. Its disrespectful of when someone really does break their leg.

    One solution to this is to give players a “penalty” anytime they go to ground and stay down injured. You must be on the side line for 4 minutes of game time after you were brought off. Also no on field treatment is allowed anymore. The trainers come to collect you to the sideline every time. If you are actually injured this gives you time to recover and get treatment, and if you were just faking, then you just cost your team a player for 4 minutes. Your team could substitute you immediately and not have to play down a man at all. If you get up quickly and proceed to the sideline under your own power you do not have to sit out the 4 minutes. It is a pretty easy judgment of when a player has been asking for a stoppage. I would have the officials always stop the game when a player stays down for more than 15-30 seconds. Given that the player will have to be off the field for 4 minutes anyway, that makes up for most advantage lost by stopping play.

    An Example: A player gets fouled and then hits the ground and rolls around in pain. The ref would blow the whistle for the foul and immediately signal the trainers to come on, collect that player to the sideline and restart the game. The player will then be sidelined for 4 minutes.

    Alternative example: A player gets fouled, falls to ground, but signals no injury, and after some time gets up limping and wincing. The official stops play for the foul. Asks the player to continue to the sideline on his own power if he can or wants and he does. The official restarts play and that player can come on whenever ready.

    Another example: A player goes to ground, but the ref sees no foul. The player stays down for more than 15 seconds while play continues (if the play results in a natural stoppage (ball into touch or a goal) then they can take more time getting up). The official then stops play. That player must proceed to the sideline for 4 minutes no matter what.

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