05 September 2009

All good children go to heaven

O temporary mores!

So, then: diving. You know, I was thinking about writing something on the topic, what with all the fuss there has been after Eduardo's, shall we say, performance last week. But given how much has already been said, I imagined that you, darling reader, would probably be at saturation point by now, soaked to the bone with virtual spittle, and I thought it wise to refrain from dousing you further.

That is, until I saw what James Lawton had to say:

A lot of people think we should move on from the Eduardo affair, with minimum fallout and as quickly as we can, but a lot of people are wrong.
Wowser! That's me told. So, it's settled. Let's get to it. I'm certainly not going to be the one to disagree with Jim Lawton, now, am I?

Why are you looking at me like that?

Small wonder Lawton wants to keep the righteous flame burning. Consider the issues the episode has raised. After all, what Eduardo did was a prime example of "the scourge of cheating that has disfigured the game for so long" and has "infinitely reduced" football. While "Andrey Arshavin's goal [against Celtic] was a small masterpiece", it was "painted in a studio that had been made so squalid". Diving is "the most visible form of a rottenness that is now hopping from one sport to another like a monster flea".

It may be that Lawton's writings on the matter are a prose approximation of one of those cars that gets called "sensible" even as its exhaust pipe destroys entire species on the school run alone, but it nonetheless reflects the consensus which has underpinned the past week's debate in all its shades. This basis — whether you think that justice has been served in the form of Eduardo's two-game European ban, or that UEFA have manoeuvred themselves into such a dreadful spot that it may leave them no recourse but to close their eyes and try to wish themselves out of it — is that diving is utterly, irredeemably wrong. Not only that, but its practitioners occupy a special category of wrongness, like nonces or Bono.

And that's the problem. The entire discussion has been founded on a flawed calculation. The value of diving is not axiomatic but a variable in an equation full of them (despite the Daily Mail's ingenious satire). If this was a space mission, there would be an awkward conversation taking place right now between Houston and some seriously miffed astronauts.

For an example of the true fuzziness of the boundaries, take a look at what Volker Finke had to say recently. Finke, manager (for now, one gathers) of J-League team Urawa Red Diamonds, has attracted attention for his comments after one of his players did not go to ground when seemingly unfairly tackled in the penalty area. "That's what I'm the most angry about — him getting fouled and not falling down," said Finke. "I'll give him a fair play medal." Motokai Inukai, president of the Japanese FA, reacted by questioning the very right of Finke to coach. "It's hopeless. Is that how low we have sunk?," the exasperated Inukai gasped.

But Finke had a point — a particularly pointy point at that. This incident — of a type which is commonplace — is not easily accommodated by the Mailesque urge to rigidly delineate morality (all the better to condemn you with...). If a player is fouled, but not in such a way that makes it blindingly obvious, can a player exaggerate the contact in order precisely to blind the ref with its obviousness? Some would say that two wrongs don't make a right. But one wrong doesn't make a right, either. If the application of justice is as inefficient as it evidently is, can a player not nudge justice in the right direction? But then, how can we trust the player to decide whether a challenge made on him is legal or not? And if the challengee can do this, can the challenger not claim it to be fine for him to, say, slyly pull an opponent's jersey next time around? And if he can do that, well...

In other words, diving is wrong is nothing to found a religion on. Indeed, Finke's mistake was not in believing that there exist legitimate occasions for diving, but — as noted by The Offside, while criticising Finke — in voicing it in so public a manner. For there are the Laws of the Game, but there are also the laws of the game. The Laws of the Game are quite clear on how they believe things should proceed. The laws of the game are also clear, but they are devilishly nuanced. And the first law of the game is: You don't talk about the laws of the game. Finke's error was more practical than moral.

If this strikes the reader as dangerous moral ambiguity: what can I say? Welcome to sport, stranger.

One person who has addressed this with honesty and perspicacity is Rob Marrs. On his blog, Left Back in the Changing Room, he has presented the case for permissible diving. (If Marrs was a football manager, you would already have read about this on the back page of a tabloid under the headline CHEATS' CHARTER!) In short, cheating is rife in football, in various forms, of which diving is but one. And defenders are able to get away with a hell of a lot more than attackers, from shirt-tugging to sneaky nudges in the back while contesting a high ball, via unseen handballs, persistent fouling and claiming throw-ins that aren't theirs. These acts occur far more frequently than diving, yet prompt virtually none of the fulmination and downright millennial angst inspired by artistic impression: 5.7.

If the talk since last Wednesday had really been about the morality of diving, and of Eduardo's effort in particular, our soccer media, mainstream and otherwise, would be permanently clogged with nothing but grief-stricken jeremiads on how the soul was being wrenched out of the game. (To those of you who are thinking that that's all we've been getting lately, be fair: we've had those glorious transfer rumours too...) Cheating happens and happens a lot, and the foundations of civilisation are none the weaker for it. What's so ridiculous about all this is that even though the argument has been couched in moral terms, it's really been about other things.

One of these is aesthetics. A dive looks worse than other kinds of cheating; it's more spectacular. It's not that it's sneaky — it's that sometimes it's not sneaky enough. Maybe it's how obvious it can be (especially when done badly) that affronts us. Maybe it's too visible a demonstration of the kind of thing that happens all the time, often when we — or the proxy we, the cameras — are not looking. It's a home truth.

Another actual point of discussion — and this ties in with the aesthetics — is technique. And it is here that the real silliness of this whole issue reveals itself. Here, we can even afford to overlook Celtic manager Tony Mowbray's rationalisation of Aiden McGeady's tumble which saw the wee tyke earn a second booking last Sunday. It wasn't a dive after all: "A dive is when you try to influence the referee, you throw your arms up and so on", said Mowbray sheepishly. (Mowbray has a way of making everything he says sound sheepish.)

Better instead to examine the reaction to the penalty incurred by Arsenal when Manuel Almunia was deemed to have fouled Wayne Rooney. Rooney dived just as surely as Eduardo did. The difference was that Rooney's legs made contact with the keeper's arms. The difference is not moral, but technical. Rooney was simply cannier than Eduardo. Or was he? The fact that Rooney and Almunia made contact and that Eduardo and Artur Boruc did not had little to do with the respective strikers and almost everything to do with the respective goalkeepers. The idea that a player's moral sense is dependent on the decision-making powers of another player is surely too undercooked not to vomit straight back up. That the referee was correct in awarding Rooney the penalty, as per the Laws of the Game, hammers home the primacy of the laws of the game. That Eduardo was, in fact, just as canny as Rooney at exploiting them — he won a penalty, too, remember — blows a hole right through to next-door's kitchen.

UEFA, one supposes, have banned Eduardo pour encourager les autres. It may even work, for a bit. But soon, someone will believe themselves to be cunning enough to gain an illicit advantage without punishment. They may be right; if not, someone eventually will be. And all this ignores the myriad of options available to the prospective nogoodnik. We could follow J-Law's reasoning and clamp down on all of these, too; this is the logical extension. Then we can finally place football on the position on the sporting spectrum we all so long for it to occupy: somewhere between Simple Simon and croquet.

This, of course, is impractical. Competition is the essence of sport, and cheating is an inevitable by-product. Lawton's characterisation of it as a "contagion" is wrong. It presumes the fallacy that sport begins in a state of purity, that dives make baby Jesus cry. But competition comes with impurity as standard. Human behaviour will never fully be legislated, no matter how sharp the law's teeth. Not only would it be Sisyphean to try to eradicate cheating: it would be undesirable, too. You could only do it by eliminating competition. Eliminate competition from sport and ... well, have you seen line dancing?

The prohibitionist rage against diving that periodically froths like it has lately demonstrates little more than how disproportionately discombobulated one can get about a peeve. Because a peeve is all this is, as surely as a dislike of people who drop litter is. As Marrs says, "the problem here is that football doesn't know what to do about diving because, as with other things within the game, we are rife with hypocrisy and general refereeing inconsistency". (For what it's worth, I think that refereeing inconsistency is far more a product of human nature and how damn difficult it is to oversee a football match than it is of incompetence.) Before we unleash our inner Moral Majoritarian, we would be well advised to get things in proportion and to ensure that we have our terms straight. Until then:


Paul_Brooklyn,  7/9/09 6:50 AM  

Are they all faking it? Or, are they all really just that blind to their hypocrisy?

Fantastic stuff.

Elliott 7/9/09 5:52 PM  

Great piece Fredo - because the ¨"dive" occupies a gray area in between the laws of the game and the LAWS of the game, all too often partisan bifocals obscure each individual incident.

My two cents-

I am pro diving as long as a forward has a yellow card to spare - its not like they need that card for a tackle later in the game. (coach perspective)

The dive is the equivalent of the defensive desperation slide tackle - demonically effective when successful, but a calamity of catastrophe when mistimed (quasi neutral spectator perspective)

MANvsTREE,  9/9/09 6:28 AM  

i love this

Caleb 9/9/09 9:39 AM  

Great piece, but cheating is more contagious than you let on. Say one team finds a way to consistently gain an advantage over its competitors through some sort of "cheating innovation"--e.g. the Italian squad and its highly effective diving campaign in recent years. Ceteris paribus, opposing teams must either adopt this innovation or be left in the dust. If all of my competitors start making their international sales calls using VOIP for pennies a minute, but I stick with AT&T out of principle and pay two bucks a minute for my three hundred sales reps, it won't be long until my competition cuts prices and destroys me. I either accept the contagion, or I close shop. So yes, useful innovation--whether moral or immoral--is usually highly contagious.

Ed 10/9/09 2:30 PM  

I'm worried for football if we ban the dive. Whatever next will the tabloids throw their arms up in the air about? There would be no opportunity for legislators to leap on their sanctimonious high horse or managers to turn a blind eye.

Perhaps we could start handing out bans for wearing your shirt outside your shorts instead? Scruffiness is the REAL scourge of modern football.

Think of the children!

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