Diving. Depending on your relationship with soccer, hearing the “D word” might conjure up disgust, amusement, or a mixture of the two. While something that isn’t unique to soccer, the art of playacting in order to draw a foul on the opposition is something that’s particularly controversial in soccer because of the ramifications often attached when it happens.
In basketball, flopping might result in a player getting ejected, but often that’s the extent of the punishment and fouls called as a result of a flop rarely directly impact the outcome of a game. In football, players — usually quarterbacks — might embellish contact to try to draw a flag for a late hit or blow to the head. While such a call would result in a 15-yard penalty, it’s something that again that usually wouldn’t directly influence the outcome of a game, simply because even when a team has the ball on the 1-yard line there’s still so much left to do in order to score.
Soccer is a bit different though. Diving outside the opposition penalty area might draw a yellow or a red card depending on the offending player’s previous offenses. It could result in being sent off and banned for subsequent games due to card accumulation, and it could mean one team goes down to 10 players for the remainder of the game. That reason alone makes the subject a more heated debate among soccer fans than almost any other sport — a man advantage is nothing to sniff at.
Then there’s the whole other matter of taking a dive in the opposition’s box. If the referee is hoodwinked then a penalty kick is awarded, and in a game where goals are tough to come by (MLS averaged 3.04 per game in the 2019 regular season) that’s a pretty big deal. There is perhaps no equivalent foul in basketball, baseball, hockey, or football that carries so much weight as the awarding of a penalty kick (OK, maybe a penalty shot in hockey), and if it’s awarded wrongly...that doesn’t tend to go over well.
Diving is also widely considered a pretty bad look for the game. There’s a fair amount of Americans who still consider soccer to be “unmanly” or “weak” and diving is often given as a reason for that opinion. Even among ardent fans of the sport diving is widely looked down upon, labeled as a “dark art,” and players who are caught doing it are called rather unsavory things. It’s hard to argue with that particular sentiment. Not only can it make the sport look bad, but if you’re a fan for long enough, then you’ve probably seen your team lose an important match as the result of a dive.
More than ever, efforts have been made to reduce the prevalence of diving in the sport we love. In MLS, fines are regularly given out for simulation after questionable incidents are reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee. While I wasn’t able to find statistics on cards given for simulation, I certainly feel that they’re a more frequent occurrence than in years past. Back in 2017 the English FA passed a law allowing retroactive suspensions of players who dove and made a significant impact on the match because of it.
Is it working though? Will we ever see diving all but eliminated from soccer? The truth is, probably not. Simply put, there’s far too much to gain from successfully hoodwinking a referee, and the potential benefits often outweigh the consequences. As I detailed earlier, gaining a man advantage, putting an important opposing player on a yellow card, and especially getting a direct opportunity to shoot on goal are just far too attractive a prospect. Sure, a player could face retroactive suspension or a fine, but if the dive in question results in winning silverware do you really think that’s a deterrent?
The introduction of video review does pose some interesting questions though. In theory, being able to replay questionable calls from different angles and speeds should make stamping out diving a simple task. But with rules about when and how video review may be used varying from league to league, and discussions about how to interpret the laws of the game cropping up on a weekly basis before this pandemic-caused-suspension of soccer, it’s proved anything but. In the Premier League especially, video review was being criticized every week, and often with good reason. A still imperfect tool isn’t going to be as effective at rooting out diving as quickly as originally hoped, if at all.
In my opinion that leaves us mostly in the same place we started. It’s fair to say that diving is one of the ugliest blemishes on the face of soccer — if not the absolute ugliest — but unless technology to combat it improves or a revolutionary new rule is thought up out of nowhere, it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.