Is diving really the worst crime of them all?
It's a cold Saturday morning and most of the little rats accountable for the collective chaos in the neighbourhood park from the previous day would be dozing off at their saintly best. But a clique of mud-loving heathens, us, would be waiting by the kitchen doors hoping to be spared a thought by our mothers.
A neatly worded request and a scurry around the wardrobe later, we'd be running to catch the morning bus to our school ground. One hand carrying the jute kit pregnant with our boots and a pair of stinking stockings and the other squeezing the right side pocket lest a penny falls out and wrecks our plans.
All of us lodged up at different parts of the city, no mobile messenger group to coordinate, line up by the pavilion inside an hour as the coach moves his head from left to right, with the demeanour of an uncompromising headmaster, as he makes sure everyone is in attendance.
"So y'all do understand. Good." Unspoken words are seldom heard clearer than that.
Post the drills, talking to-s, punts, and the much-awaited end game to boot, we'd be jiggling our thighs, cooling off after a gruelling day with the cones, the poles, the posts and the nets.
But do not be mistaken, there would precisely be 2 sets of faces you'd encounter. The first one would be the gleaming, smiles-brighter-than-the-day sporting rascals who won the game and the other would be the blues-ed out souls struggling to acknowledge the banter with a smile, every once in a while, for purposes of convincing everyone that you've bought into the credence that it's just a game.
I never lied to myself. This isn't just a game. What drove me out of the comfort of my blanket at 6 o' clock in the morning wasn't just quality time with the lads. Like my coach would have much appreciated for me to say... it was to win.
It was to end up on the side that could flash their fangs and laugh a little louder than was warranted. And to remain unapologetic about it is what football taught me as a kid.
Look for it
A winger who found himself by the side of the box had 4 options to choose from. Dink it into the area, wait for an overlapping run, pass it to the attacking midfielder or "look for a penalty". The term 'look' undefined and hence, open to interpretation.
And every time the game flourished down the wings, the defenders remained alert. Cautious to not go lunging in, careful not to hack for fortune, all because you knew he'd be 'looking for it'. If you so much as brushed the lanky hurdler, you'd retract your entire body.
I got my hands up, don't shoot me, I did not touch him.
You might not have either. But if the coach said 'penalty', you walked back, swiping that sweat off the forehead with the kit, nodding your head, eyeing the perp, half smirking, half laughing and finally acknowledging, Yeah, you won.
There will always be a difference between falling in love with the beautiful game and falling in love with the televised sport. But the harder you try to standardize it for the sake of the latter, the more strained our tie becomes. After all, we'd all love for football to unite us than divide.
Are we trying to impose our moralistic slants on the game? Are we not trying to weave linen into metal then? Even if we are, where do we draw the line?
Dele Alli dived, yes. As have so many players before him. As has Diego Maradona. But if you were to go all black-and-white on footballers, we are going to have to spend some time at the coffee-table exchanging one blow after another.
So, before we tangent off to the poles, let's take a look at what Arsene Wenger had to say about Dele Alli's getting booked for simulation against Liverpool.
“You want your players to be intelligent. Sometimes they have played a little bit with the rules, they make more of it on the penalty case. Every striker will do that. How far can you go? That is down to the referees and I think that sometimes, at normal speed, it is very difficult to determine. As much as I can be harsh with the referees, on that front I am quite tolerant because when you watch a game live it is very difficult at 100% pace to distinguish whether it is a dive or not.
“Most of the time, when a player is going to the goalkeeper, they push the ball away from goal. They had a good rule in England when I arrived here. When the striker pushes the ball away from the goal, they didn’t give penalties because the only resource the striker has after is to look for a penalty.
“In many cases now, the guy goes and if the goalkeeper has their hands off, the striker leaves a leg as long as he can to make sure that the goalkeeper touches him. But that’s not really a penalty.”
While Wenger vocally condemns diving and advocates against it, he has provided us with a scenario that desperately needs to go under the knife.
If diving is cheating, well then...
So what's that then? Pushing the ball away from goal and the goalkeeper and into irrelevance, awaiting the faintest of touches from a brave goalkeeper to go down and win your team a penalty? There is contact, but there is no substantial threat on goal. There is no impending danger. But it's a penalty all the same.
What of the ball boys being nasty little buggers towards the dying embers of the game when the home team are desperately holding on for all 3 points and the away team running around haggardly to pull an upset?
How about taking the freekick from a more advanced position than from where the foul was given? How about all the time-wasting buggery put on show by the winning team, week in and week out, whether it be the delayed substitutions followed by the never-ending sauntering off the pitch or the punting of the ball into the crowd to ensure play does not resume as swiftly?
What about claiming for the ball when it clearly touched the player on its way out?
Or the goalkeeper running out of his line right before a spot-kick is dispatched so as to cut down the range available to the striker?
Let the bodies hit the floor
Nothing gets my goat like a marauding run into the box getting thwarted by an ugly challenge. It's poetry in motion getting pelted with a rotten egg. A tuft of grass flying hither, the defender's boots thither and the striker's body hitting the ground like a sack of grains getting dumped in the warehouse as stock.
Penalty. A decision arrived at after reviewing a series of events starting with the apparent ferity of the defender and ending with the attacker writhing in pain (fake or not, interestingly) on the ground.
So riddle me this. A wild hack inside the penalty area catches the shin of the attacker but he stays on his feet and adjusts himself and unleashes a shot that fleets past the post and rests in the stands. What then?
No victim, no crime? And suddenly the wildest of hacks is pardoned?
Lionel Messi is as qualified an anti-diving trooper as any in the footballing world. "The Bronca" keeps running in spite of the boots that fly below his knees, sometimes above it. He doesn't go down unless physics doesn't leave him a choice.
So, play on?
In fact, the body hitting the floor has become a pre-requisite for a foul to be conceded, hasn't it? That might be pushing it, I admit. But a perturbance to the flow of play has to occur, a shrug of the shoulder screaming 'what was that' might be enough on the best days but yes, the cause has to have an effect.
So when you're told by the gaffer at the age of 6 that if somebody hacks at you inside the box, go down and win a penalty, which side will you take?
The gruelling years take a toll on the kid, he rises through the rigid system to make it to the top and the utmost essential ingredient for that is results. A penalty is a result. A penalty is a good result as opposed to creating yet another chance to only see it fizzle out. So, who's gonna go and tell them... not to look for it?
And as we gradually proceed through these 'immoralist' arguments, I'm compelled to ask yet another question.
How much selling is faking? How much faking is cheating?
Refereeing top-flight matches might just rank among the most stressful jobs. You gotta be wary of every touch on the ball, everything affecting the play and stay focussed unremittingly.
And professional footballers became so because they are pretty damn good at what they do. And their job embraces a bag of tricks with which they're often testing the referees.
Everyone knows you gotta convince the ref about an iffy situation if you've gone down. But learn no drills from Casemiro though, because evidently, you gotta sell it shorter than that.
But the fact of the matter is that you do end up having to sell it. If you get got, hit the deck hard, sputter, cough and slap the grass thrice. That's not cheating, eh? Let's call it making a case.
The reason why a case has to be made is simple. Refs are as human as we are and are not geared with X-ray vision.
So let's say, there's a harsh tackle, an illegal one and it does not hurt very much but the player decides to make a meal of it by writhing on the floor. But how far do you push it before it becomes faking it? How far do you fake it before you're 'cheating'?
Isn't diving essentially enabled by this culture? Exactly how far are we willing to go in our moralistic pursuits with our flimflams to drag the grifts out of the game so as to dress it up for the idiot box?
Wouldn't we be leaving far too less to the world of football with respect to the anarchic beauty of the sport if we pull on our sermonic garbs with a stick up our a**?
Where to now?
The game has grown beyond anyone's reach now. The sheer money involved has raised the stakes too far high. There are millions skirting side to side with every kick of the ball.
As might come out as uncharacteristic of my line of thinking, I really do believe that VAR will help refine the game. Take a look at the Liverpool vs Tottenham game, for instance. The refs spent more, if not as much, time in deciding whether a penalty should have been given or not as using VAR would have.
It will break the flow of the game but it's a case of choosing the lesser evil, isn't it? Would we rather take the strap to the officials and the system, game after game, vying for justice or just take a hit and make sure nobody wins unfairly? I'd go for the latter.
In the meanwhile, the more you try to take diving, as a strain exclusively, out of the fabric of the game, you're left with a top that's both ill-fitting and primed to come off the seams.
Pochettino defended Dele Alli's actions against Liverpool thus,
"Look, it was a yellow card. It happens. The referee was right. During different games, a lot of situations like this happen.
"Today we are so sensitive. I like to treat the sense of football. Football for me is being creative, to try to not cheat but trick the opponent in a good way."
“Football is about trying to trick your opponent - yes or no? When you do tactics, it is to try to trick the opponent. You play on the right, but you finish on the left.
"20 years ago, 30 years ago, we all congratulated a player when he tricks the referee like this. That is the football that I was in love with when I was a child."
Poch's arguments offer an alternative take on the topic which is diametrically opposite to that of Wenger's. Yet, if you spend two ticks of the clock on Youtube searching for Wenger's players falling like rose petals in the wind, you'll inevitably be introduced to an entire playlist of Gunners going down, apparently, against Wenger's wishes.
I'd say it's about time we got off our high-horses and put a stop to the blame games. Footballers dive. Like they get in each other's faces and take abysmally long walks when substituted towards the end of the game when their team is winning just like they claim for a throw-in that is not theirs.
Diving is most certainly a part of the game we could do without, yes. But let's hand over the decision-making to the largely faultless entity (*ahem* VAR *ahem*) so that our brows can rest and the horses can follow suit.
The onus, right now, is on the footballers and a footballer's head is as good as a beehive when he's chasing the ball on a Saturday evening when tens of thousands are roaring him about with both the COME ON LADs and the F*** RIGHT OFFs.
He has one thing on his mind as is ideal and that is all 3 points. When the grill they'll fall on if they fail is as heated as it always is... WIN.
By hook, line or sinker.
You really wanna ask that player to suit up?
Or do you want to upgrade the officiating?