Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Dastardly Deed of Diving

On Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium, a tragedy occurred. After 83 minutes of grueling soccer, Real Salt Lake held a slim 1-0 lead over DC United. It was a hard-fought game and DC were hoping to be able to nab a point at one of the toughest places to get points from.

Enter Charlie Davies.

After receiving the ball between the midfield at the 18-yard box, he begins his run down the right side of the box. Defender Chris Wingert steps over to stop the run. He slides in front of Davies, knocking the ball away slightly. It looks to be clean. He didn't touch Davies. He got the ball. Good play. Except for one small thing: Davies dived. He fell straight forward, as if he had been touched, and the ref awarded him a penalty. He grabs the ball, lines up for the penalty, slots it nicely in the bottom-left corner, just underneath the diving Rimando and wheels away to celebrate the point taken from Rio Tinto.

And, in this instance, taken should include all the negative connotation that you can imagine. RSL were robbed of 2 points and Davies had no shame in it.

Diving has been a controversial topic, especially in American circles, and most of the flak seems to revolve around Charlie Davies (or Diveies, if you like), as this is not his first dive in DC United colors. His actions are an absolute disgrace to the beautiful game, to MLS, to DC United and to himself.

All sports are mainly built around showing off physical ability and talent. For a striker, this means showing off your ability to get the ball past defenders and the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Few things are as beautiful as watching a devastating attacker weave through defenders and slot the ball past the goalkeeper. On the other hand, there is nothing beautiful about pretending to be tackled. But, unfortunately, with the rules as is, there is greater incentive for attackers to fall over at the slightest contact (or even the possibility of contact) rather than try to create a wondrous goal to wow the audience. It is even worse when watching a player like Davies do it, because he has the talent and the ability to create great-looking goals, but instead he opts for diving.

That's part of what is harming a lot of South American players. In Brazil, Argentina and the rest of the continent, diving is part of the game. Players dive at midfield when touched in hopes of getting a free kick from 60 yards away. Once they're in the penalty box, its only a matter of time before players are rolling on the ground. Play-acting to get cards and free kicks is not a beautiful thing to watch. The world didn't fall in love with the Brazilian style of play because they were really good at diving to get penalties. We fell in love with them because of the amazing individual skill: the glorious backheels, gorgeous dribbling and exquisite finishing. And the fact that they did it all with the biggest smiles on their faces, not the fake grimace that fills the faces of delinquent divers.

Today, many Brazilian stars have to take at least a year or so to acclimate to the referring climate when they move to Europe. Even when they move to Spain or Italy, the refs are cracking down more on diving than in their home leagues. Neymar is the next in line to make that transition. After getting a booking in the Copa Libertadores final for diving (continental competition in South American is tougher on diving than the domestic leagues), Neymar was forced to stay on his feet for the rest of the game. Even though he wasn't at the top of his game, he still looked very good and showed off some wonderful skill. When he makes a move to Europe, especially if he moves to England, he is going to have to retrain himself to stay up when people come near and not fall over, lest he be ejected for his play-acting.

The world watched in horror as Barcelona and Real Madrid fought back and forth for the title of who would dive the most in the first leg of their Champions League battle. That spectacle was made even worse by the fact that neither of these teams need to resort to such petty tactics to get good results. After the game everyone agreed: that was not a good match. It was not beautiful. Arguably, the two best teams in the world put on one of the ugliest matches ever. It was a poor advertisement for the beautiful game.

As an American fan, I'm always working hard to get more American fans to support the game. Luckily, I had not convinced any of my friends to watch this game with me, because had they seen it, I would have never gotten them to watch another game. It was everything that was bad about the game crammed into one game. Save for Messi's brilliance at the end, it was nothing but a desolate wasteland.

To me, the only thing more aggravating than watching that wreck of a game or watching Davies dive to steal a point off of RSL is listening to people try to defend these actions. The apologists of diving are just as bad as those who are out on the field diving. If they cared about maintaining the beauty of this game, they would understand that diving has no place in this sport.

Some have pegged diving as the attacker's last refuge of safety against growing defenders who can push them around the pitch. This is disastrously wrong-headed. The attacker has an array of weapons to combat against defenders who might be much bigger. The biggest advantage is their smaller size. They are quicker. They maneuver better and should use this to get around defenders rather than running at them in the hopes of drawing a soft foul. The battle of big versus small, quick vs tough, is a classic match-up in all sports. To claim that the only way that the small, quick players can get by is to dive is to underestimate their ability tremendously. Also, there is no reason to think that all attackers are small and all defenders are big oafs. Bobby Zamora is one of many strikers who beat up and bruise defenders with their big size on their way to goal.

Others have argued that in the battle between defenders and attackers, defenders often use professional fouls to stop the run of play when an attacker has a goal-scoring opportunity. Therefore, attackers ought to be able to use diving. Both are against the rules, but most don't see professional fouls as some attack against the integrity of the game, so neither should they seeing diving in such a negative light.

This blurs the distinction between diving and professional fouls. The main difference is deception, specifically towards the referee. Deception is part of all sports. You want to deceive the opposing team into thinking that you are going one way when you are going the other or that you are going to run one play when you are actually running another. Deception is a key part of soccer, especially from a tactical point of view, but also when dealing with individual skill, but only when that deception goes as far as the opponent. During the course of the game, it is the referee's duty to mete out justice: to keep the game fair for both teams. In order for this to be successful, the referee cannot be deceived. In a court of law, deceiving a judge can see you imprisoned for perjury. On the football pitch, deceiving a referee ought to be met with punishment as well and should not be praised. It stifles the game and creates an unfair match.

Chris Wingert had done nothing wrong when he knocked the ball away from Charlies Davies, but he was punished for it, because Davies deceived the referee. Would the defenders of diving feel the same if instead of giving a PK, Wingert was given a prison sentence because Davies deceived a judge? The principle is the same in both situations. Deceiving that person who is duty-bound to dole out justice is not a moral action. (This rule comes with one exception: if that judge is not doling out justice correctly, then you ought to deceive the judge to make sure that his or her false sense of justice is not taken out on innocent persons. This exception will never appear on the football pitch, though, even if it is quite common in the court of law.)

Diving is wrong, because it attempts to deceive the referee and causes him or her to mete out justice incorrectly due to false information. Professional fouls are perfectly fine, because they in no way attempt to deceive the referee. The player engaging in a professional foul understands what they are doing and what the consequences are and ought to be willing to pay them as they are spelled out. That's why I had no problem with Suarez using his hands to keep the Ghanaian shot out of goal, but am deeply troubled by Davies' dive against RSL.

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