Time to drag diving out of the deep end
a. To plunge, especially headfirst, into water.
b. To execute a dive in athletic competition.
c. To participate in the sport of competitive diving.
In what has undoubtedly been the most scintillating, successful and satisfying year in the history of British sport, it is sad to say that the above definitions for ‘diving’ may not be the first that spring to mind for many football fans.
‘Diving’ should evoke happy memories of Tom Daley clinching a fantastic bronze at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It should conjure up images of athletes’ craft, discipline and guile in one of the world’s most precise and gracious sports.
Unfortunately, the mention of diving to your average sports fan is more likely to lead to debates concerning Premier League footballers - Santi Cazorla, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale among the main offenders- rather than a celebration of Daley’s achievements.
While diving is not a new problem in the English game, it is becoming increasingly prevalent, and less frequently punished.
In the good ol’ days, the never-say-die, life-on-the-line, blood and thunder culture of British football did not allow for diving, play-acting or exaggeration. Vinnie Jones, former Wimbledon, Chelsea and Leeds midfielder, football’s quintessential tough guy in the late 80’s, certainly did not stand for it.
Recalling an occasion when a team mate dived in the area, he said: “I walked over, picked him up by his hair on the back of his neck and told him ‘we don’t do that here, son. Got it?’ I promise you he never did it again.”
While this approach is admirable, there is no disputing that the Premier League has changed for the better in many respects. There is less violence on and off the pitch, less needless aggression (and in turn, red cards) and most importantly, more skill, grace and variety than ever before.
Football has moved on for the better, but there is no getting around the issue of diving.
Previously, the act of simulation was attributed only to foreign players, those ‘softies’ from Italy and Spain who would go down at the slightest touch, throw themselves over a hanging leg, and dive like an Olympian over any form of sliding challenge.
However, this footballing tumour has now spread to the core of the Premier League. It affects players of all nationalities, ages and abilities. Take Gareth Bale. The 23-year-old winger is widely considered one of the best talents in world football, but this is overshadowed by his reputation for diving. He has been booked four times in the last two seasons for simulation, and while he maintains his innocence, referees will inevitably take some subconscious note of this statistic.
Santi Cazorla is the most recent and controversial case study. The Arsenal midfielder provoked outrage amongst fans, players and pundits when he blatantly dived to win a penalty in his side’s recent 2-0 victory over West Brom. To make matters worse, the Spaniard refused to apologise, saying that it is something that ‘just happens’ that should not ‘be a big controversy’. The fact that even his manager Arsene Wenger, infamous for not seeing key moments when his side have done wrong, criticised the dive said it all.
So what is the solution? How do we cut out diving? How do we cure this cancer?
In real time, there is no doubt that referees have a nigh-on impossible task to make a split second decision as to whether a player has dived or gone down under contact. Take Fernando Torres’ dive in Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester United, which led to a second yellow card from referee Mark Clattenburg. A decision that split the footballing community 50/50 as to whether Torres had deliberately dived, or rightfully gone down under the slightest contact from Jonny Evans.
The answer – introduce a panel of former referees to review and analyse controversial incidents from the weekend’s games. Have a five-man panel that must come to a unanimous decision on every alleged dive or act of simulation. If there were any doubt or disagreement, for example a 3-2 or 4-1 verdict, the referee’s original decision would stand. If all five agree that a player has dived and deliberately cheated, an instant three-match ban would send a clear message to all footballers.
This would take the pressure off referees, lead to less media witch-hunts, fewer furious managers and act as a strong deterrent to would-be divers.
Who knows, in the not so distant future, maybe Daley can once more reclaim his crown as the rightful king of diving.