“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?