[Published in Sports Illustrated on April 2, 2012]
The Glaswegian faithful were unusually somnolent on this February night some five years ago. Making a rare foray into the round of 16 of European soccer’s elite Champions League, their green- and white-striped Celtic side were hosting AC Milan, who had quickly established themselves as rude guests, lazily stroking the ball around the pitch, suffusing each cross-field pass with an infuriating insouciance that inspired as many scowls as yawns. The imperiousness of their play was not wholly unexpected, however: both current form and pedigree made Milan the obvious favorites to win the game. (Number of Champions League titles won: Milan 7, Celtic 1). And in this moment, Milan finally looked ready to deliver the knockout blow. It went like this: Kaká played a silky ball on the ground to Alberto Gilardino, who zipped into the penalty box. Celtic’s last defender and goalkeeper rushed to confront the Italian, but he nimbly touched the ball around them to his right. Unfortunately for Gilardino, his efforts to round the keeper placed him at an impossibly acute angle on the right-hand-side of the penalty box. The €24 million man was good, but he would’ve never scored from here. Alone in the box with no immediate help from his teammates, he pulled the most dastardly trick out of his repertoire. No, he did not conjure up a clever step-over. No, he did not cross the ball to a marked teammate. And no, he did not magically curl the ball into the net. Instead, Alberto Gilardino fell on his face.
The crowd roused itself from its stupor. The Celtic players erupted. The cheat!
If Gilardino successfully deceived the referee, he would have earned Milan a penalty kick. And if he had gotten really lucky, he would have gotten one of the Celtic defenders carded, or better yet, sent off. But what distinguished Gilardino’s flop here from the dives that occur each weekend around the world was its sheer stupidity. During a typical dive, a player will topple over and grab a random body part — maybe his face, maybe his knee — but only after he’s been touched, however lightly. This seems like common sense. But in this case, Gilardino was easily a few yards from anyone else on the field before he thrust himself forward and crashed to the ground, without so much as a tap on the shoulder. You don’t have to be familiar with Stanislavsky to know that this is bad acting. Confronted with such obvious evidence, the referee, the Norwegian Terje Hauge, awarded Gilardino a yellow card for “simulation,” FIFA’s official term for diving. Gilardino, still sitting on the grass, turned to the sideline referee for sympathy, and, upon receiving none, muttered a small protest in Italian.
This may be the most egregious dive in recent history. Which is a shame, because antics like Gilardino’s invariably mar the experience of watching soccer, whether you are new to the sport or partaking in a decades-long Sunday tradition. The stakes get higher when you consider that the dive, as a horrible affront to machismo, is probably the most-cited reason that soccer will fail in America. After all, what better captures the “grass fairy” stereotype than a grown man flailing to the ground, untouched, as if Mike Tyson had just sucker punched him? As the theatrics of players like Gilardino return to American households during this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament, it’s worth taking a closer look at the phenomenon that is diving. How can referees better detect these inglorious tumbles to the turf? What can we do to eradicate the culture of simulation? And can we learn something from Gilardino’s famous flop?
A gradual shift in soccer’s attitude toward cheating paved the way for the culture of rampant diving we see today. Artifice on the pitch became de-stigmatized, acceptable, even glorified, starting with Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarterfinal victory over England, in which Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in the history of soccer. In the first goal, the 5-foot-5 Maradona beat the 6-foot-1 English goalie Peter Shilton to an aerial ball in the penalty box, punching it into the net with the aid of his outstretched left fist: The Hand of God. (His second goal, a half-field solo run known as the Goal of the Century, exuded an air of virtuosity and technical artistry never before seen. Still: “Sometimes I think I almost enjoyed [The Hand of God goal] more,” said Maradona.) Thanks to the Hand of God, Argentina won the game 2-1 and went on to win the World Cup. Given the high-profile nature of the match and its consequences for England, it might not be an exaggeration to say the devolution of “fair play” — soccer’s long-standing culture of sportsmanship — began with The Hand of God goal. Thanks to the diminutive Argentine, cheating was now a real possibility — a glorious, World-Cup-winning possibility — and this opened the door for diving to emerge and gain popularity; in fact, in The Guardian‘s compilation of “best” dives, the earliest entry is three years after Maradona’s sleight-of-hand — none register before his inspired leap. It might seem extreme to pin the degradation of soccer’s sportsmanship on one player, but Maradona was (and continues to be) one of sport’s great icons, and with that power comes commensurate capacity for influence. The fact that FIFA created its “Fair Play Award” (designed to recognize good sportsmanship) the very year after the Hand of God goal said it all. Soccer’s culture of gentility was over: sportsmanship was now to be rewarded, not expected.
Some may point to the nebulous concept of “fair play” in defense of soccer’s enduring grace, yet this principle, so entrenched in the modern game, makes reform more difficult, if anything. Since there are no stoppages in soccer, one of the unwritten rules behind “fair play” (which is only now beginning to be questioned) holds that a good sportsman will kick the ball out of bounds when an opposing player is hurt. Fair play takes on a more ironic meaning when players abuse it late in games, feigning injury in order to interrupt the other team’s rhythm by forcing them to kick the ball out of bounds so they can receive treatment. Worse, when the injured player gets up, his team kicks the ball all the way back to the opposing team’s goal, meaning that the good sportsmen have forfeited any advanced field position or momentum they had before the opponent’s “injury.”
Dives and other violations of fair play aren’t typically as clear-cut as the cases of Gilardino and Maradona imply, however. So what if the player actually is hurt? How can we know for sure if a dive is a dive? Perhaps there is no way to tell. Consider another infamous dive against Celtic, attempted some two years after Gilardino’s ill-fated effort. In the 27th minute of a 2009 Champions League match, Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva also appeared to fall down in the penalty box a little too easily. Two things differentiate this case from Gilardino’s, however. One, Eduardo actually earned and converted the ensuing penalty kick. Two, he also earned a two-game suspension from European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. While many agreed with The Guardian‘s instantaneous verdict — “a risible dive” — Arsenal unsurprisingly found the charge “deeply flawed” and launched a formal appeal on behalf of the player. Two weeks later, upon review of the footage and referees’ opinions, UEFA overturned the suspension. “The day after that match, Michel Platini, the UEFA president and one of the finest players of his generation, told me his view of the incident was inconclusive,” wrote Rob Hughes in The New York Times. “It looked like a dive, but only one man, Eduardo, knows if he went to ground because of contact. If Platini, with his personal experience of playing, could not be certain, why would the members of a committee sitting in Switzerland and reviewing the video overrule the appointed decision maker on the field, the referee?”
Academic studies exhaustively reach the same conclusion: it’s hard to tell. In a 2009 study, the University of Portsmouth’s Paul Morris and David Lewis had students watch short video clips of tackles and judge whether simulation took place or not, or if they couldn’t tell at all. The results were highly reliable in that most of the students’ answers matched up with each other. (Reliability is of course different from validity, but we’ve established that it is often only the player who knows whether he has dived or not.) Unfortunately, students most often agreed that they could not tell if a dive had occurred; for a number of the clips, virtually all the students selected the “not sure” option. Indeed, Morris and Lewis remark, “The frequent use of the ‘not sure’ category probably accounts for the controversy surrounding whether a player has attempted deception or not.”
The main problem with this study is, of course, the test subjects. They are students, not professional referees. Also, in the study’s efforts to eliminate bias, the researchers showed the students footage of lower league games. This complicates any conclusions we might draw since the lower divisions feature wildly different atmospheres to those of the upper echelon; diminished player and referee skill likely combine to create a very different culture of diving. Nonetheless, Morris and Lewis deserve credit for codifying Gilardino’s dive — whose form is among the most histrionic and ubiquitous we see in the modern game — as an example of the “archer’s bow.” The term’s description will instantly remind fans of a number of infamous divers and some of their best performances over the years: “the chest is thrust out; the head is back; the arms are fully raised and pointing upward and back; the legs are raised off the ground and bent at the knee.”
If we’re not sure if we can spot simulation with certainty, we can examine the set of circumstances that most often lead to diving. Another diving study published this past October by a University of Queensland professor and doctoral student analyzed 2,800 falls in 60 professional games across the world. The first finding, that players dived twice as frequently in the area closest to the attacking goal than when in any defensive area, is unsurprising, even in light of another finding: referees rewarded fewer dives in attacking zones. But more interesting was the scoreline’s effect on dive frequency. Players were significantly more likely to take a dive while the match was a draw, compared to when one team was winning or losing. The rationale offered by the study’s authors? A player has most to gain when his team is level with the other team, since the goal-scoring opportunity represents a chance to win the match. According to the study, he doesn’t tend to dive more when his team is losing, since the goal-scoring opportunity only represents a chance to draw, not win. While this argument could be argued vigorously — aren’t players on the losing side desperate for a comeback victory? — consider the points system used in leagues and tournaments anywhere. A win is worth three points, a draw one point, and a loss zero. This corroborates the authors’ logic: a player stands to gain two points for his team by breaking a tie game with a goal, but only one for his team if he scores the equalizing goal.
True, when making calls on the field, referees take these factors into account. Brian Hall, who became the first American to officiate a World Cup match in 2002, told NPR before the 2006 World Cup that referees consider the area 30 yards from the goalmouth a “red zone” for diving, especially since free kicks in this zone lead to goals 30 percent of the time. But it’s the ball itself that usually gives the diving player away. “When an attacker pushes the ball too far ahead of him and will likely lose possession, he thinks, hey, I’m not going to get the ball. I might as will hit the ground myself, try to get a free kick or penalty kick because the end result is going to be negative in the first place. And as they hit the ground what’s the first thing they do? They roll over and they take a peek to see where the referee is and trying to say aah, I got you.”
But there’s a difference between being aware of simulation’s red flags and actually punishing players for flopping. In the University of Queensland study, the researchers classified challenges between players into two categories: fair tackles and dives. None of the 169 observed dives were punished by the referee. And of the 2,633 tackles between players, the referees gave seven free kicks against the innocent players that fell down (but didn’t dive), as well as two yellow cards. “As such, no relationship between the punishment of deceivers and a decrease in the prevalence of deception was detected,” the authors concluded.
This is not to ignore the plight of the referee in this situation. “It’s very difficult because you have to hope you are close to the play and with the speed of the modern game that’s not always that easy,” said Hall. “You have to hope you have the best possible sight lines to the contact and to the play.”
So, how can we curtail diving? The fans have spoken, and players hate it as well (so they claim). The logical solution would be to levy extortionate fines at habitual divers in order to discourage repeat offending. America’s Major League Soccer has taken baby steps toward this goal, fining Charlie Davies and Alvaro Saborio $1,000 each for tumbles last summer. The official reason? They committed dives that “directly impacted the patch,” or, in other words, led to penalty kicks and, in the case of Saborio, the ejection of an opponent. (In a rare concession, Davies later admitted to “embellishment,” but refused to classify his fall as a dive). While the salaries of MLS players aren’t anywhere near those of NFL, MLB, or NBA players, it’s clear that a $1,000 fine isn’t making an impression on either Davies or Saborio. (They both make around $300,000.) But what if players had to hand over 10 percent of their salary after each dive? $30,000 isn’t anything to scoff at for either of those two, who would certainly think twice before ever attempting to fall over again. Sure, players like Landon Donovan or David Beckham would object to a $200,000 or $600,000 fines, but if the goal is to foster a sporting culture in which diving is anathema, attacking players’ checkbooks seems like the most effective way to go.
Very slowly, punishments for diving are becoming more common worldwide. (Unhappily, however, these punishments have not caught up to the weekly post-match condemnation of Opposing Player X for obvious simulation and/or crimes against humanity). Last year, Italy’s Serie A — home to some of the world’s worst serial offenders — suspended Juventus winger Milos Krasic for fall that led to a (missed) penalty kick. The sentence was no small tap on the shoulder either, since Juventus faced league rivals AC Milan in its next game. That said, the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga or German Bundesliga — easily the world’s best leagues — lag behind in their quest to eradicate diving, having never fined or suspended players for simulation. But perhaps their inaction represents pragmatism (and pessimism): it’s simply not worth the effort to punish players who can immediately — and often successfully –appeal the subjective nature of the call. Likewise, FIFA has the power to review events in question after international matches, but the process is often corrupted by the ever-exploitable element of inconclusiveness inherent to the dive. (Recall how Arsenal successfully appealed Eduardo’s Champions League suspension, just two weeks later.) Nonetheless, it seems that FIFA and the world’s greatest leagues have to stomach the fact that they may get a few heavy fines and suspensions wrong if they wants to effect greater, longer-lasting change in the game. I’m not saying these governing bodies shouldn’t try to avoid Type I errors — in this case, fining players who did not dive — but what’s a million euros to a notorious diver like Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who could pay that with a month’s salary? While it is possible that clubs could undercut the policy by indemnifying players against diving fines, it is enforcement — both during and after games — coupled with serious punishment that will only begin to mitigate the problem of diving.
When you think about it, the 10 percent solution isn’t an extortionate measure. A single dive truly has the potential to alter the course of a single match, especially if it leads to a goal-scoring chance. It’s true: in soccer, goals are hard to come by. And they’re getting even rarer. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, players scored a total of 145 goals over 64 games, an average of just 2.26 per game. This is part of a downward trend over the past 12 years; 171 goals were tallied in 1998 in France, 161 in Korea/Japan in 2002, and 147 in Germany in 2006. Goal scoring opportunities take on more meaning than ever and players, quick to recognize this, are ready to topple over easier than ever. But at competitions like the World Cup, the Champions League, or even a domestic league, more than glory is at stake. Individual games are incredibly lucrative. Consider the Champions League Final, which in 2005 surpassed the Super Bowl as the world’s most-watched sporting event. Unlike the tournament’s earlier home-and-home knockout rounds, the final is a single-elimination match: win one game and you’re champions of Europe. Excluding winnings from the tournament’s previous matches, the victor takes home €9 million, the loser €5.6 million. Granted, for the teams that usually make the final, money is typically no object. But considering the effect that a single goal has on soccer matches — which are becoming lower scoring each year — it’s really inappropriate to compare flopping in soccer to basketball or other sports. A single dive can completely change the outcome of a soccer match. A flop in basketball, on the other hand, might net a player two free throws out of the 90-or-so points his team will accumulate by the end of the game.
There’s a kind of beautiful symbolism immanent to the perfect dive. I’m picturing Gilardino’s fall, the textbook archer’s dive: his knees buckling, feet dragging across the grass, both arms flinging upward, inexplicably, spectacularly; the hysterical childlike panting — what, me? — betraying his unshaven, importunate visage; the look of feigned incredulity. Think now of Paradise Lost, where each character consciously falls from upright splendor and sins prostrate. Likewise, with each dive to the ground, soccer falls further from innocence. Gilardino tasted the fruit and flung himself on the floor, lying in “moping melancholy and mood-struck madness” before 60,000 angry souls at Celtic Park. But is there a felix culpa within all this? Can we view dives like Gilardino’s as positives if they embarrass FIFA into reforming the game by issuing suspensions, fining players, and introducing replay evidence? Enactment of any of these solutions might even redeem a diver’s sin, such are the financial and competitive stakes at hand. But action is not to be taken for granted inside soccer’s monolithic governing bodies, which have plenty of sins of their own to atone for. A lot of players in this situation are in the wrong, of course, but it all starts with the conscious choice of the player on the field. He does not conjure up a clever step-over. He does not cross the ball to a marked teammate. And no, he does not magically curl the ball into the back of the net. Instead, he elects to fall on his face.
Still on the ground, Alberto Gilardino regards the referee, who looks to restore justice to the situation. In an ideal world, the referee’s actions wouldn’t deserve commendation — they would be as routine as whistling for a throw in — but on this sleepy night some four years ago in Scotland, they do. Standing erect, Terje Hauge peers down at the fallen Italian, briskly raising the yellow card into the marmoreal Glaswegian sky.
Shaj Mathew has contributed to The New York Times Soccer Blog, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lapham’s Quarterly’s Roundtable Blog, The Millions, and McSweeney’s. He lives in Philadelphia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @shaj10 on Twitter.