As Real Madrid became the subject of a shock 2-0 loss to perennial German understudies Wolfsburg in the Champions League this week, there was a widespread gasp across the footballing world. This gasp was not only drawn by the result, but by a controversial act in the second half’s play; Real Madrid’s Brazilian left-back Marcelo head butt on Wolfsburg’s German midfielder Max Arnold. Not only did this attack go unpunished, but Arnold was the one booked for his understandably provoked response (a few harsh words) to Marcelo’s dramatic face-grabbing fall to the ground. The very fact that a dive, that became clear to hundreds of millions across the world thanks to television footage, led to the booking of an opposition player despite the fact Champions League matches have five top-level officials in charge, is, in my opinion, totally unacceptable at this point in time. If some of the best officials in the world cannot spot a seemingly obvious dive from five different angles and punish it, surely football needs to change the way it looks at both the rule books and its methods of refereeing.
The main aspect of this debate to look at is that this is not a one-off incident, in fact far from it, in modern-day football. On Match Of The Day, you are likely to hear the pundits talk about at least one situation of a contentious dive almost every week, which I think if you looked at today from the looking glass of any time before the 1990’s, would be unbelievable. If you think of all of the famous dives and play-acting situations in football, quite a few spring to mind almost immediately. These include Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, David Luiz for Chelsea and Ashley Young for Manchester United, who all won game-changing decisions such as red cards (for the opposition) and penalties. Even as a Man United fan, I cannot stand up for what Young did on a number of occasions to win penalties and games for the team, as I don’t think that as a player it should ever be acceptable to play up the incident to convince officials to hand your team an advantage.
Despite this opinion, which I’m sure all of you reading will agree with (if not, are you sure you have any morals?) clearly nobody working at FIFA, UEFA or any national FA’s who have the power to change things agree with us. If they actually took action when they saw incidents, surely FIFA should’ve imposed stricter, clearer rules after the 2002 World Cup. In the semi-final, Brazilian icon Rivaldo completely ruined his public image by clutching his face and falling to the ground after the ball, passed (petulantly, yes) by Turkish defender Hakan Unsal hit his thigh when he was about to take a corner. This was a comical but highly embarrassing moment for football, yet the only thing that happened as a result was a £5,180 fine (less than 6% of his $125,000 weekly wage at Barcelona at the time) and no ban at all. Rivaldo soon stated that he would have done the same thing again, clearly asserting to FIFA that he had not learnt his lesson and that their punishment was nothing to him. If they ever want to punish players properly, you have to do it on the same level as Luis Suarez’s ban of nine international games and four months of club football. You can clearly see from Suarez’s cleaner behaviour in recent months that the ban has worked.
But as the percentage of repeat offences in prisoners across Britain and other highly developed countries across the world in recent years have shown, imprisoning (or banning from a footballing perspective) is not always effective. There is a lot of recuperation and psychological help needed for law breakers, whether that is in football or not. A different example in which this helps is in parenting, as studies show that parents who explain what their child has done wrong to them and how it affects others, rather than just telling them off, have less problems in future with bad behaviour. I’m not saying we should treat footballers like children (although they sometimes act like them), but the authorities should definitely focus more on these hands-on, psychology based courses to teach all footballers how to act according to the law in game situations. It would employ some of the millions of psychology graduates at least.
Another approach needed is to stem the flow of this behaviour at its cause. In the case of play-acting, the areas it is synonymous with include Spain, Central America and South America. These definitely aren’t the only regions where diving and feigning injuries happen, but they are the most notorious through history, as a result of their footballing culture, in which strong, physical play is encouraged from a youth level, particularly in defenders and midfielders. If you look at the way the Honduran national team play, flying into tackles with little regard for safety, or the methods of centre backs such as Walter Samuel (Argentina), Rafael Marquez (Mexico) or Mario Yepes (Colombia), you begin to see the extent of their physicality. To counter this, the opposition attackers have found out that with their pace and trickery, they can easily deceive the tiring referees by getting in their blind spots and taking a tumble when they feel a trailing leg edging anywhere near them.
Barcelona’s current South American strike force of Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar (Argentinian, Uruguayan and Brazilian respectively), who all grew up under the Latin-American system, have made themselves known, not just for their incredible skill, but for their use of play-acting techniques in helping their teams get an upper hand. Yet nobody has questioned their behaviour (barring Suarez, which was for biting and not diving), meaning some of the most iconic players in football right now are being encouraged to continue this. Is this setting a good example for children who are going to pursue a career in the game? You wouldn’t allow a banker to steal money from a different bank, a chef to poison the food of another restaurant or a car maker to break the machinery of a rival company, so why do we allow footballers to cheat and sabotage the chances of the opposition?
But in reality, this discouragement of behaviour at grassroots level has not yet materialised anywhere across the globe. While many managers of top teams in European nations would explicitly reveal they do tell their players to refrain from cheating and play to the rules of the game, I know for a fact that there will be a number of others who encourage their teams to bend the rules slightly to their advantage. For the number of incidents of play-acting at Barcelona and Real Madrid over the past decade, you’ve got to assume that the coaches figured a few cases of dives winning free-kicks, penalties or bookings for the opposition into their game plan. The thing is, these coaches, as well as the players, are so desperate to win, just because they know they are at the pinnacle of the game and success for them is as much of a business concern as a footballing one. They know that if they fail to win these big games, they will not be able to survive at the club, so they will do anything that is in their power to do so, whether it be to the laws of the game or not.
My personal viewpoint on this problem is that something serious needs to be done soon to stop this unlawful and cheap, dirty behaviour to make the ‘beautiful game’ worthy of its name again. My solution to the major issue of play-acting on the biggest stage would be to explore the possibilities of video technology. Many sports, including rugby, cricket, tennis, American football and basketball all use video replays and extra officials to make unquestionable, reliable decisions, ones that could dictate whether one team wins or loses. These sports have all had success with this technology, with the pre-installation doubts of the replays wasting too much game time proving unfounded when supporters got used to the systems. If you just think about all of these sports, do you associate any of the players in them with cases of cheating? I certainly don’t, partly because they aren’t paid such astronomical fees as footballers, but mostly because the rules in these sports clearly outline what is fact and what is fiction, that players can’t get away with cheating. When video technology is used, there is less scope for game-changing mistakes, and surely we value the right result with the right decisions over a maximum minute-long delay possibly two or three times a game.
Just look at the achievements of HawkEye’s goal-line technology in chalking off or allowing contentious goals in the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Serie A, not to mention the World Cup, in the past five years. Their technologies work effectively in split-seconds, moving the game on quickly, hardly impacting on the added time in each half either. If the FA, UEFA or FIFA hopefully invested in opportunities to explore how far video technology can go to enforcing the rules of the game in a similar way to rugby union, I believe that football could regain justice for unfair play and convince its doubters that it is a truly democratic and beautiful game.
So considering all of this information, surely there will have to be movement soon from the FA, UEFA or FIFA soon, realising that the growing pressure from supporters, clubs and officials does mean something to the game. They cannot go on failing to listen to everybody involved in the sport, as they will never get anywhere without taking the consideration of the people that they, taking everything they do into account, serve on the boards of these organisations. What do they do all day if they aren’t examining the cases of Marcelo, Neymar and Suarez, for example, into account, if they’re not trying to fix the problems in the sport? But without our criticisms, they will never realise where they can improve, and they will escape any blame for failing to act, with the one thing that will always stand, far longer than any committee members will be around or we will be lovers of it; football, taking the brunt of the damage done. Surely it is not the game, which cannot be represented or singled down to one person, that should be in the wrong here; it should be the people who ultimately decide everything that happens in it, the rule changes, the bans and the fines, the FA, UEFA and FIFA members.
Surely they could just be honest with us over whether they have seen and are doing anything about these problems or are not going to act, rather than brushing everything that is clear, video evidence and media reports, under the carpet as if it is a dirty secret at these organisations. In the end, we all lose out over this, as the game will never improve. It only deteriorates the perception and image of the game to non-football fans and outsiders if nothing happens, so why aren’t they doing anything to change this? Are they out-of-touch or just totally corrupt, bowing down to the demands of big clubs and big name players for the money that can be made from sponsorship? These are questions that need answers from the top, and soon.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!