In Defense of Diving

Jon Busch was having quite a game.  The San Jose keeper had made a few really good saves and the ‘Quakes were hanging on against Real Salt Lake.  Despite being outplayed, it looked like the home visiting team could grab a point from the match to help their playoff run.  Then in the 61st minute Alvaro Saborio was played through with a great pass and made a move to avoid the San Jose defenders.  Bobby Burling came in front of Saborio, missed the ball but looked to clip his thigh, and down went the RSL striker.  The official pointed to the spot, sent off Burling, and Real Salt Lake converted the penalty then punished the 10-men side by scoring three more goals.

Problem was, Saborio was barely touched.  He fell in the box with little to no contact and got the call.  And San Jose was mad at the time and mad after the game: “Our boys are putting the effort in up until that point,” said Busch according to the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s frustrating that a call like that changes the whole game when we are busting our tails for points right now.”

Diving has been an issue in MLS this year, most notably in regards to two questionable calls received by Charlie Davies to set up penalty kicks, including one against RSL.  Steve Davis, one of the beat’s best writers, points out that this particular incident puts Jason Kreis in an awkward spot due to his past advocacy against diving.  To his credit, Kreis has said he would talk to Saborio about the incident after re-watching a replay.

But in this case Kreis is wrong.  Diving always has been and always will be an integral part of soccer, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When soccer fans think of diving, they think of leagues like Italy’s Serie A, where players flop and fall all over the place in hopes of duping referees into giving them calls.  Diving is one of the major reasons cited why American sports fans will not embrace soccer; it’s dishonest, cheating, and wimpy they say.  The Brazilian women’s soccer team was roundly booed by German fans in their match against the U.S. due to some questionable injuries.  And ESPN even got into the action with a funny take on the issue with a Sportscenter ad.

So why do players dive?  In his excellent book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones links diving in Italian soccer to a deeper hatred of authority; players dive because they know the deck is stacked in favor of the big clubs and maybe, if they can convince a referee they have been fouled, it will make up for the other times the foul was not called.  It’s a matter of justice: referees are either corrupt or incompetent so it behooves a player to try and overcome this natural disadvantage.

I think we can all agree that officials in MLS can be, at times, incompetent and I am sure San Jose fans are arguing David Gantar falls into that category.  Does that justify “cheating” though?  Sports are not built on equality, but on competitive advantage.  Not all teams and players are created equal, and the “lesser” ones have to do what they can to keep up.  In some cases, this is blatantly illegal (prohibited steroids), immoral (throwing games), or both (buying off players).  But in other cases, players use human shortcomings to even an advantage.  Keepers will slowly walk by a player about to take a penalty and whisper something to unsettle them; defenders will often clip or subtly use their hands to unbalance a player when they know an official isn’t looking.  Small tricks are a part of any sport, soccer included.

Diving also isn’t for soccer alone.  Watch American football and you will see a wide receiver who can’t catch up to a pass fall if the defender makes any contact.  The best NBA players are usually those who can best “draw” fouls and act as if they have been horribly assaulted.  Even taking charges in basketball often means falling a little easier on contact than someone will admit.  We call these things the cerebral part of sports: a player knowing how to gain an advantage using the rules.  Ask Kobe Bryant when he positions his arms inside a defender to get a hand check call.

But let’s take the specific case of Saborio.  Is his dive justified?  There did look to be contact with Burling, probably not enough to cause a complete fall but a little.  Burling also ran in front of Saborio to try and block his advance, a really clumsy play that easily could have been an obvious foul.  So while the actual result was not a foul, it certainly could have been.  To wildly speculate, maybe Saborio saw what was happening and anticipated colliding with Burling, so to protect himself he positioned his body to fall.  Remember, his teammate months earlier was seriously injured while trying to score, and Saborio himself is recovering from offseason knee surgery.  His dive may have been nothing more than an attempt to protect himself from serious injury.

In a perfect world, diving would be unnecessary.  Referees would make every call correctly, players would play a graceful style of soccer, and serious injuries would be a rarity.  In reality, soccer is beset by human failings, and a smart player will use whatever is in his arsenal to counteract these frailties.  After all, we expect nothing less: if RSL had drawn that game, ink would have been spilled about their shortcomings.  In an imperfect world that demands perfection, shortcuts must sometimes be taken.  Should it go without punishment? At times, no.  But we have to admit it is a necessary and understandable part of the game.

24 Responses to In Defense of Diving

  1. Scott Devey says:

    Ummm this was in Salt Lake, San Jose was away.

  2. Clampdown says:

    I really don’t like the comparison with basketball, a sport in which someone scores once every several seconds. It is so much more difficult to obtain that elusive goal, and most of us cherish the build up to it, that any kind of fakery to gain an advantage (either defensive or offensive) is difficult to take.

    I know people always say, “Well, if it were you’re team/player, you’d have no problem with it.” Wrong. I get disgusted when I see players engage in an effort to con the ref. As an example, I want to cheer hard for Jozy Altidore, but he makes it very hard with easy manner in which he falls over.

    Last year I was on vacation and got into a conversation with an Englishman who said that he really appreciated the honesty of the US and Australian players and lamented the increasing dives and conning of the ref by English players. In the end it may win a match but it also isn’t worthy of respect.

  3. You claim diving is ok because refs are corrupt. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Poor refereeing doesn’t warrant blatant cheating. The difference between diving and other forms of gaining an advantage, such as whispering in the penalty taker’s ears, is that diving purposefully deceives that person who is supposed to be meting out justice. Diving to get a PK is just a less severe version of lying to a judge to get someone sent to prison. Both ideas rest on the same principle.

    I explain that idea more in-depth on my blog. You can check that out here: Not trying to advertise, I just don’t want to rewrite the entire article here.

    • Sgc says:

      I don’t think diving is justified, so much as I think we make some kind of special case out of diving when *that* isn’t very justified.

      If a defender fouls a player, throws his hands up in the “I didn’t do it!” pose, and the refs buy it and don’t call a deserved penalty, it seems to me that’s equivalent to a dive, both morally and in impact on the game. Yet you have to look real hard to find many examples of neutral fans getting as worked up about that as diving.

      I think it’s because the outsider criticisms of our sport get to us. You said it yourself in your column, half what you’re thinking about it what non-soccer fans will think. The problem being that then the outrage is just some kind of performance for some unseen audience that probably isn’t impressed by it anyway.

      In fact, it’s probably counter-productive because all the indignation just draws more attention to the problem, and the fact that despite all the indignation it doesn’t go away.

  4. Alan says:

    There is more to it than that in the Italian game Robert. Italians see soccer from all aspects. Trickery is not as much about scoring an unfair penalty as it is about messing with an opponent’s head. True, the dive can draw a penalty, but it is the psychology involved that is apart of Calcio. You nailed some of it, but I think you missed that part. Diving to them is one part of that trickery. In Serie A they have started coming down hard on diving though. Look at what happened to Krasic from Juve last year. The same thing should happen in MLS and even with our national team when they do it. In defense of Serie A, it happens a lot less now than people think.

    • Sgc says:

      My observation is that it’s not so much (or not only) that diving is peculiarly accepted in Italy, but that the extra moral indignation is peculiar to Anglo-Saxon countries. A lot of it has to do with those countries having a form of rugby that’s perceived as ‘manlier.’ And at its origin (England) a lot of it has to do with class bias. (Rugby being a game played stereotyped as being played by gentlemen, whereas football was played by the rabble.) Some of that crossed over to America without Americans really remembering why, but it was convenient enough for gridiron football fans to pick up on the same notion.

  5. Cylence says:

    Diving should never be defensible. MLS’ referees do a poor enough job handling legitimate fouls, and the game suffers for it. Add in bad calls for player’s flops and it’s disheartening to both the fans and the players. As a Serie A fan, while I understand the mentality that has supported it, I’m happy to see diving getting the same poor reputation it has in other major football leagues.

    As far as other sports go, fans hate NFL flops just as much, and I loathe professional basketball’s foul system too much to even start a response.

    Ultimately, it comes down to honesty. I have no respect for a player willing to cheat, nor for a league that allows it. If a player doesn’t pop up and take responsibility for tripping over his own feet, yellow card every flop.

  6. Edgar says:

    Barcelona: Queens of the Flop

  7. Lee says:

    Part of why diving is so prevalent in soccer versus other sports is because from a competitive standpoint (ie trying to win games) it simply makes sense.

    For example, if you are 1v4+GK in front of you, with no passing options, what makes more sense? Trying to weave your way impossibly towards goal, or fall down at the slightest touch, giving your team a (relatively) free shot at goal?

    Sadly, in soccer, diving is often the first option a player takes, whereas in basketball and (especially) football its closer to the last option.


  8. WSW says:

    It’s trickery if the ref buys it it’s part of the game.

    MLS fans are sooooo honest it’s going to kill them in the end.

  9. Charles says:

    First of all it is cheating. Period. Nothing else needs to be said.

    But you said a lot else.
    1) MlS officials are no more incompetent than any other in soccer.
    Big surprise that I would be the one to argue against the US inferiority complex, I know, but someone has to be do it. The inferiority complex….It is stupid.
    2) It is not a good comparison to other sports, like someone said, basketball is a goal every 30 seconds. Footballl, the dive, which almost never gets called wrong ( due to the fact they have many officials….are you listening MLS ) rarely results in a game changing victory play.
    3) IT IS SOLVABLE. Kasey Keller already told you how to solve it. I did too, but no one knows or cares about me. See below.

    Suspend players that dive after reviewing every game. Every game in MLS is recorded in high def. Suspend cheaters. Not that hard. Davies and Saberio are out 3 months right now. But you know what ? THEY AREN’T !Because they knew the rule going in and didn’t dive in the first place.

    • SSReporters says:

      It’s not an inferiority complex. Toledo, Salazar, and the rest of these jokers are terrible referees. Toledo is the worst one of the bunch and he’s not even American so shut up with your USA vs. The World argument.

      Agree with everything else.

  10. Eladio Bobadilla says:

    Absolutely agree- great article! This is a different way to look at the diving issue. More needs to be done to stop diving, agreed, but what the writer says about the dynamics of the game are also worth considering!

  11. Joe Carignan says:

    Completely agree with Mr. Hay … certainly in the professional sports world, we should never blame someone for behaving in the way he judges will best help his team win the game. Consider that the problem of diving could be solved in an instant: Just suspend any player “convicted” of diving(however that process would work) for a whole season, and diving would stop in an instant.

    Obviously, that’s far too harsh a penalty, but the point remains: There is no significant penalty to diving, and there are (sometimes) advantages. If the player’s goal is to win the game, he should do what’s legal to achieve that goal. In this case, to misquote the cool kids of 1995, we should hate the game and not the player.

  12. Seybold says:

    What exactly is a dive? Some cases are clear, but others aren’t. If there’s no foul, and you collapse, that’s clear.

    But referees almost never give penalties when a player stays on his feet–even when it is a clear foul, a clear penalty.

    I recall a match (England-Mexico friendly before the 2010 World Cup) where a player’s jersey was blatantly pulled from behind. Easy penalty, except the player kept going, and stayed on his feet. No penalty. Should he have stayed on his feet? If he’d gone down, it would have been a penalty. But would it have been a “dive”? Or just going down easy? Either way, unless he goes down, he doesn’t get what he has fully earned under the rules of the game.

    How would we feel about “diving” if Landon Donovan was in clear in the 90th minute of a 1-1 World Cup match and his jersey was tugged from behind, but he stayed on his feet, didn’t score, and no penalty was called? And we lost in extra time?

    Furthermore, there’s a continuum between a “dive” and going down easy when you’re fouled. What are you supposed to do if you are small, and bigger players are constantly fouling you, but no fouls are being called? If you go down easy, fouls that are fouls will be called. Is that diving?

  13. JT says:

    FAIL: trying to justify flopping

  14. JT says:

    Seriously one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever read. It just sounds like you’re a RSL fan and don;t

  15. Bolacuadrada says:

    One of the reasons why I stopped watching Sudamerican soccer was because of diving. The worst part is that they condone cheating as part of the game. To me, cheaters will never be respected. I have a few examples of players whose cheating will always come to mind when talking about their accomplishments, Dani Alves, Maradona, Henry, Tulio, Rivaldo, Materazzi, Cuautemoc Blanco, etc. One of the things I point out when I try to convince my friends to watch the MLS is that the players do no fake injuries. What is happening now will not help me at all. People who defend cheating probably do not want video technology in the game. That only makes sense since technology will clean our sport of cheating and corruption. As good as Barcelona is, people are turned off due to their “barbie” attitute. Bunch of divers and “llorones.”

    • Alan says:

      I certainly hope that my comments did not come off as justifying cheating. I was just trying to explain the cultural aspect of it. I think that there needs to be consequences for it and it needs to stop. It only hurts the sport.

  16. Seybold says:

    What exactly is diving? If it’s theatrically throwing yourself to the ground when there’s no foul or even contact, sure, it’s clear. But what about going down easy, when there’s a clear foul, to make sure it gets called?

    Consider this: referees very rarely award penalties unless a player goes down. I remember an England-Mexico friendly in 2010 when Adam Johnson’s jersey was blatantly tugged but he stayed on his feet, and didn’t score.

    In the 2009 Gold Cup final, on the other hand, Giovani dos Santos got his jersey pulled in the box, and went down easily. He probably could have stayed on his feet. Mexico scored.

    Adam Johnson didn’t get a penalty. Dos Santos did. Both were clear penalties. It’s easy to say the first ref got it wrong, the second ref got it right, but both cases were normal refereeing. If you don’t go down easy—unnaturally easy—you don’t get the penalty. Given that that’s how referees judge the game, players either go down easy, or they don’t get a penalty they deserve.

    Imagine this: Landon Donovan is in the box in a World Cup quarterfinal, 1-1 in the 90th minute, and gets his jersey tugged. Does he stay on his feet, and shoot, even though he’s earned a penalty, and the jersey tug has made his scoring chance a lot harder? Or does he go down and get the penalty he’s earned?

    If he goes down, is it a dive? In a sense it is, because the force of the jersey tug isn’t causing him to lose his balance. However, the act of staying on his feet denies him a clear penalty he has earned.

  17. quentez1 says:

    Notice in more technical leagues its not bad i see nothing wrong just don’t get caught.

  18. quentez1 says:

    Notice in more technical leagues its not bad i see nothing wrong just don’t get caught.But alot has to do with the players balance but the ref call a foul/pk.

  19. Dave C says:

    A few people have brought up a good point – refs almost never give a foul unless they are sure, and they’re rarely sure unless someone goes to ground. If you get bumped, pulled or tripped but stay on your feet, you’re unlikely to get the call.

    So in my mind, there’s a huge difference between exaggerating this type of contact so as to encourage the ref to make the call, and a “pure dive” in which no contact was made whatsoever. In my mind,the former is fine (I do it myself), while the latter is cheating. And to be honest, I don’t think the latter happens as often as people believe.

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