I’m literally lolling at the state of English football journalism right now. For the entire 2017/18 season British pundits, players, and managers have gone out of their way to excuse diving and then one man goes down easily and suddenly they have rounded up the tiki-torches and are rallying to stamp out diving forever.
John Cross of the Mirror was front and center of the baying mob with his headline “Danny Welbeck’s shameful dive overshadows Arsenal win and embarrasses English football”. In this article, and I kid you not, Cross says: the dive “should embarrass English football”; that it may make others stop diving; that the dive decided the tie; that AC Milan were enraged; and that “foreign stars have brought (diving) to the Premier League”.
This is an entirely different article from the one John Cross penned exactly one month ago when Dele Alli was embroiled in a diving controversy. This one ran with the headline “Dele Alli played for Tottenham penalty but Rochdale boss won’t hold it against him – ‘I hope he does it for England'” In this article, Alli “earned” a penalty and the rest is all glowing quotes from the Rochdale boss about how he would love it, LOVE IT, if Dele Alli would dive in the World Cup.
But what exactly is a dive? It seems to me like diving is sort of like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation about porn “I know it when I see it.” Which leads to wildly different interpretations of what constitutes a dive. Let me illustrate.
There are four basic events that happen when two players come together on a football pitch – No foul + No dive, Foul + No dive, Foul + Dive, No Foul + Dive.
No foul + No Dive happens a lot. Two players come together, the referee decides the contact wasn’t intentional or didn’t rise to the level of a foul and play goes on.
Foul + No Dive also happens a lot. A player, say, slides in, is late winning the ball, and gets his opponent’s foot and the player goes down, or eve stays on his feet. Sometimes the player is awarded the free kick/penalty but a lot of times they aren’t. I’ve seen Walcott and Welbeck get kicked in the box on numerous occasions, but because they don’t go to ground, the ref won’t call the penalty/foul.
Foul + Dive also happens a lot, I’d say it happens lot more than people want to admit. What I mean here by “dive” is any form of exaggeration. The majority of contact in football has some exaggeration on the end of it. Think about Hazard’s dive off Bellerin’s kick, that’s just one glaring example. But the most common form of this is type of dive happens when a player is playing up top by himself, receives the ball from a long punt and if a defender even touches him, he goes down, often while grabbing the ball to ensure that the referee makes the call. This is usually a player like Kevin Davies, Jay Rodriguez, Ashley Barnes, or Glen Murray. I’m talking about burley 6’2″, 175lb English forwards, who fall over when they feel a hand in the back from a fullback. This happens all the time and it’s never spoken about. Or if it is, it’s “clever”. You watch this weekend and you’ll see this happen in almost every match. The reason they do it is so that they can win a free kick. And if the kick is close enough, they get a set play chance out of it. My point here isn’t the specific action, but rather that there is an almost constant stream of exaggeration going on in football.
No foul + dive is the one that drives people nuts and there are several major types of these dives. There’s the one that Welbeck did on Thursday – the player either feels a touch or anticipates a touch and because of the regularity of players exaggerating contact (see above), the player goes down. This seems to get people the most incensed. I think because it exposes the lie of the sport, that players aren’t exaggerating contact constantly. The one that seems to be ok with some people is the one where the player anticipates the contact, the contact doesn’t happen on its own, so the player manufactures contact. This type of dive, the “kick out” dive, is also very common in England. Dele Alli does it all the time.
This type of dive has several key components. The first is that the attacking player “wins the ball”. All he has to do is literally kick the ball away and that will satisfy most people that he’s won the ball. It doesn’t satisfy me, but then, I’m a weirdo I guess.
The second component is that “there was contact” as if any contact is a foul. Warren Barton, bless him, made this argument about the Welbeck dive on TV here in the States. According to that argument, Rodriguez touched him so he had a right to go down. But what players like Dele Alli “cleverly” do now is literally kick their opponent to simulate the contact. Whenever the keeper is coming for the ball in a 1-v-1 he will initiate his dive before and as he’s going over the keeper, he will stick a leg out to draw contact. They also do this when a defender stands up near them, even if the defender is pulling out of the tackle.
Here’s a compilation of several of the types of dives described above:
The comedic aspect of all of this is the almost religious fervor people pour into “diving” but how they only seem to reserve this zealotry for the most egregious examples or what they consider to be the most egregious examples.
See, diving is a lot like calling a foul. What’s a foul? We’ve talked about this here many times before and I’ve come to the conclusion, based on the laws of the game, that a foul is whatever a referee calls. The laws of the game are so subjective, especially when it comes to calling fouls, that even video assisted refereeing often calls fouls that fans and other referees don’t think are fouls! And if no two referees can agree on fouls so how on earth can people agree on dives?
Someone said to me that VAR would have solved the Welbeck dive: I disagree. The referee who called the foul was standing inches away from the action. He called it a foul. Why wouldn’t a VAR referee decide that Rodriguez tugged on Welbeck? I’m not saying that Welbeck didn’t exaggerate (because he did!) just that we cannot be 100% certain that another referee would say that contact wasn’t a foul.
Why? because I remember the Eduardo incident against Celtic where the press had the same hyperbolic reaction. The Mirror even had a ‘campaign against diving’ that season with a cute little picture of a swimmer diving and circle/line thing! UEFA tried to prosecute Eduardo after the fact and do you remember the outcome? The referee had a good look at the action in slow motion, on video replay, in the courtroom and said he would have called it a foul even using VAR.
Players exaggerate on almost every play, they try to win free kicks, they pretend the ball didn’t go out off them, they ask for yellow cards, they fall over and feign contact. Good luck stopping that. Welbeck, who I think we can all agree exaggerates contact very rarely, did exactly what every other player does in that situation. Harry Kane won a penalty against Liverpool which had all the pundits enraged, he said “I felt contact and I went down.” And Kane’s manager Mauricio Pochettino said “Football is about tricking your opponent – one way or another.”
This is probably going to leave many of you dissatisfied. You want me to be a firebrand and either say that Welbeck is a cheat or that he should be absolved. My answer is simply that I don’t think he did anything unusual – he anticipated more contact than he got and went down easily – and modern referees can and do give a foul for any contact, even contact initiated by the player who is supposedly being fouled.
And I will end with the words of Gennaro Gattuso, the man who Crossy said was “incensed”: “Welbeck is a striker, he has to do what he does,” Gattuso said. “We cannot use that as a reference for the whole of English football – there is a great deal of fair play here. Even when I was a player, I tried to take advantage of individual situations. I don’t want to talk about the referee. I don’t want any alibi.”
Was it a dive? Was it a foul? I say we go with whatever the referee decided in the game. That said, I never imagined a time when Gattuso would be the voice of reason in football.