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03rd May 2017

Why are English players treated differently to foreigners when it comes to diving?

Tony Barrett

Marcus Rashford dived. Say it loud and say it proud.

Forget the multitude of euphemisms that have replaced the verb that most accurately described what he did; in intent, execution and outcome this was a dive. He not only “moved quickly in a specified direction,” he also “plunged deeply through the air” and he “fell deliberately in order to deceive the referee into awarding a foul.”

All of the above definitions come from the Oxford English Dictionary and, most importantly, all of them fit with what everyone saw when Rashford tumbled to the ground as Lukas Fabianski pulled his hands away in order to stop himself from bringing the Manchester United forward down.

But seeing what he did and saying what he did appear to be two different things as demonstrated by Glenn Hoddle and Robbie Savage coming up with every possible scenario other than the most plausible one while providing analysis on BT Sport.

In a truly bizarre piece of television in which viewers in their thousands shouted “Dive!” at every replay of the incident, the two former professional footballers who are paid to tell us what had happened, failed to tell us what had happened.

Their words were not only divorced from the images, they created a grey area in which doing something that isn’t within the spirit of the game is lent a context that it doesn’t merit. In fairness to BT, their half-time analysis was much stronger as it did not attempt to convince us that the dive was not a dive, although Michael Owen, better placed than most to tell it as it is, was still reluctant to commit fully.

“It became a dive,” the former Liverpool striker said, as if describing a heroin addict who didn’t start off on the hard stuff straight away but was driven to it by circumstance and need. The reason it became a dive at the end was that it was a dive at the start but those in the football industry were desperate to avoid using that word.

In various media reports, the following words and phrases were used: “a questionable penalty,” “looked for contact,” “fall,” “went down,” “appeared to be going down,” while the one that mattered most – “dived” – was hard to find.

None of which reflects badly on Rashford or his club, it really doesn’t. Not only is the offence of which he was clearly guilty commonplace and peculiar to no single individual or team, the practice of trying to win an advantage by fair means or foul is so well established in professional football that any moral judgements should be generalised rather than personalised.

Rashford saw a situation that he could exploit and took advantage of it and whatever the subsequent outrage, not a single professional footballer (with the exception of Robbie Fowler 20 years ago) would turn down a penalty awarded in such circumstances, nor would a team mate who had benefitted from so-called “simulation” become a dressing room pariah.

The reason for that is simple – diving is part of football culture whether we accept that it is or not. Gary Neville admitted as much on Twitter when he insisted that Rashford had no need justify his actions, before rejecting calls for Rashford or Leroy Sane, who had been guilty of a similar transgression, to explain themselves. Neville also pointed out that he has been consistent on this issue and he has, although those who accuse him of bias to a Manchester United player obviously won’t accept that as partisanship prevents sober scrutiny of analysis just as it fires our emotions when we see a dive.

If our team benefits from a dive we might be a bit sheepish and prefer that the players we support stay on their feet but there will be no condemnation. If an opponent commits the same offence it is a heinous act worthy of tarring and feathering. That, in many ways, is as understandable as it is inevitable, simply because being one eyed and illogical is part of our make up as football supporters. Rising above club loyalties is easier said than done and, when it comes down to it, why should anyone do so when being biased towards our own team is much more fun and provocative than being fair minded and impartial.
Neither the dive itself nor the reaction of the United players and supporters was in any way unique to them and unless the Football Association introduced retrospective bans for the offence it is likely to become even more commonplace than it already is. But it is that reluctance to say what Rashford did that is strange and it ties in with a feeling that a large number of foreign footballers have that their indiscretions are, sometimes if not always, judged differently to those of English players.

That perception was hardly undermined the following day when Lucas Leiva dived against Watford, a poorly executed effort that neither deceived the referee nor yielded the intended outcome, but a clear dive all the same, and was rightly called out by all and sundry. There was no mitigation, no suggestion that the Brazilian might just be anticipating a challenge, there weren’t even any arguments put forward on his behalf that it was out of character. It was described as a dive and everyone felt better for it. Why bother trying to subvert reality when reality is staring you in the face?

The problem is that culturally English football has its own quirky relationship with on field indiscretions and a hierarchy of sin that doesn’t always make sense. The behaviour of players and managers who demand opponents are booked or sent off by waving imaginary red and yellow cards is somehow deemed beyond the pale, even though the practice of players and managers verbally demanding punishment has been established for decades without being deemed some sort of attack on English values. Saying it = acceptable, miming it = unacceptable.

Attitudes to diving are similarly complex. For some reason, one that has never been explained, throwing yourself on the floor in an attempt to win a foul is the lowest of the low. There is a grudging respect for those who cheat physically, some are even venerated, while unless you’re Diego Maradona, Luis Suarez or Thierry Henry, deliberate handball is widely viewed as the kind of offence that you have to commit for the good of your team if the situation demands it. Divers, though, are dirty cheats who will stop at nothing to distort all that is good about the game, which makes accusing a player of being one akin to a member of the criminal fraternity of calling someone a grass.

Somehow, the word needs to be destigmatised.  What Rashford did against Swansea City was wrong and it rightly infuriated his opponents but it was far from being an act or rarity or one which deserves to be singled out because it is so heinous. But he did dive and ignoring that reality or placing it in a context that it doesn’t deserve is an attempt to deceive that is every bit as blatant as the act itself. Like players from every part of the world, English footballers do dive and it now happens on a regular enough basis for us all to accept it and deal with it for what it is rather than kidding ourselves that it’s a foreign failing when all available evidence tells us otherwise.

Hoddle and Owen should know that better than most given the former gave the latter advice of how to win penalties while playing for England. That was almost 20 years ago and since then the list of English players who have endeavoured to master that art has grown steadily, to the point where John Terry’s claim that “the England lads are too honest” to dive has lost any semblance of credibility.

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