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They Diving us Mad!

In 1982 Greg Louganis became the first male in a major international tournament to get a perfect 10 from all seven judges. In 1988 he became the only male ever to sweep the diving events at consecutive Olympic games. He was “Mr. Perfect” and it seemed the world would never see the likes of Greg Louganis again. That was until an agile Uruguayan soccer player burst on to the scene and made a name for himself with the three-and-a-half reverse somersault with a tuck, otherwise known as the dive of death.

To be fair on Luis Suarez he is neither the first nor the only player to ever simulate being fouled on the soccer field, but the Liverpool striker does seem to go down easier than a bad guy in an 80’s action movie, and has become the poster boy for diving in soccer. The irony is that Uruguayan is probably one of the worst divers, otherwise we would not always be picking on him, but that is exactly why he riles everyone because he unashamedly appears to try to con referees.

Foreign Export

In the EPL there seems to be the notion that diving is a foreign export, but Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero believes it is a universal problem. "It happens everywhere," he said. "There is a little bit of privilege with the players who come from that country. That is normal. It is the referee's job to know who is tricking and who is not." Sir Alex Ferguson, however, does not believe there is any bias, claiming, "Down the years there have been plenty of players diving and you have to say particularly foreign players." whilst Michael Owen feels that diving is, “worse than 10 years ago with the influence of players coming from South America, Spain and Italy."

Either way, to brand diving as a purely foreign import does seem to be cliché, as English players have been diving down the years too. Francis Lee was one of the most notorious - the former Manchester City striker holds the British record for penalties scored in a season with 15 of his 35 goals coming from the spot - and was given a knuckle sandwich back in 1975 after upsetting a Leeds defender with theatrics. Perhaps the increased television coverage and the array of camera angles now available makes it easier to spot dives than it did back in the good old days. Nevertheless, diving does seem to be on the increase and it is a problem that needs tackling.

So How Do We Tackle It?

Well before we think of ways to solve the problem of simulation we need first to address what exactly constitutes a foul and what constitutes simulation. Watch a game any day of the week, be it a pick up game, a college game, or a Champions league game and you will soon realize that what is considered a foul or a dive is relative to where a player is on the field. A small tug on the shirt in the middle of the field is likely to be awarded as a free kick, whereas the same offence in the penalty box is just as likely to be unpunished. There seems to be an unwritten law in soccer that states a player must be pole-axed before a foul can be punished in the penalty area. The term a 'soft penalty' seems to confirm this, in other words it was a foul but it was not bad enough to be punished. How many times have you seen a player tugged, kicked or impeded stay on their feet to try and get a shot or pass off and not being rewarded a penalty? Sure they got their shot off, but were they not impeded or put at a disadvantage? It happens all the time, and it is what leads players to go down easy, and here is where lies the second problem, what do we consider to be a simulation. Is going down easy after you have been tugged, kicked or pushed a dive? Was the player not impeded, so should they be rewarded a free kick for being fouled or be punished for diving? It is certainly a gray area, and a very subjective, and that is why there has to be clearer guidelines as to what is and is not a dive. But for arguments sakes lets just say that a dive is any act of simulation where there is no contact from an opponent. So how can we cut it out of the game?

Animal Signaling Theory

Well one possible answer may come from a study on diving in the context of animal signaling theory, which suggests that deceptive behaviors are likely to occur when the potential payoffs outweigh the potential costs (or punishments). Researchers watched hundreds of hours of matches across 6 European professional leagues and found diving is more likely to occur a) near the offensive goal and b) when the match was tied, in other words when there is most to gain from a dive. Whereas diving is likely to occur near the defensive goal, when the cost of diving (conceding a goal) is high. They also found that diving was more frequent in leagues where it was rewarded most - meaning that the more often players were likely to get free kicks or penalties out of a dive, the more often they dived.

Costs & Benefits

All of this suggests that at present the benefits of diving far outweigh the costs, and that the only way to reduce diving in soccer is to increase the costs or punishments associated with them. The current punishment of a yellow card hardly seems to outweigh the potential benefit of a goal, and in any case players rarely seem to be punished for diving. Indeed, None of the 169 dives seen in the study mentioned were punished. It is just too difficult for referees during a game to determine whether or not a player has actually dived, and as long as players feel they are able to get away with diving they will continue to do it.

One possible solution that has been suggested by the EPL managers Arsene Wenger, Tony Pulis and David Moyes is retrospective punishment. That is post-game reviews of contentious decisions, where the guilty party would be fined and banned for diving. The MLS implemented such a system in 2011, and players like DC United’s Charlie Davis and Salt Lake City’s Alvaro Saborio have already been fined and banned for diving. Such retrospective action is sure to make players think twice before diving in the future, and definitely decreases the incentive to dive. FIFA and the other powers to be currently only use retrospective action in soccer for rescinding red cards and serious incidents missed by the officials, and as long as they hold the referee’s decision as absolute then the chances of the MLS system being used elsewhere will remain slim.

But it is not just the authorities that need to look at the situation, players need to stand up and take responsibility too. If players continue to dive and feign injury they not only risk driving the fans away, but also risk putting their fellow players in harms way.

EPL referee Howard Webb recently spoke to a FIFA medical conference about the importance of curbing simulation in football, as players feigning injury could put players with serious medical issues in jeopardy. Earlier that year, he had to deal with the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, who suffered cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match. If players continue to cry wolf and feign injury, the chances are that when a player does have a real, possible life threatening, injury or illness everyone will suspect them of simulation. It might just take such a serious situation to occur before the authorities and players stand up and take notice, but by such a time it will have already been too late.