diving, football, and the laws of the game

I’ve written previously on the ethics of diving, this post is not so much about ethical issues as it is about the way the laws of football are enforced when it comes to penalising/rewarding diving. In fact this post arguably doesn’t have much place in an ethics blog. However as it is about how the most popular sport in the world can be improved and bring a greater happiness to all who watch and participate in it, whilst preserving the integrity of the sport I will shoehorn it in (also I’ve not posted anything in a long time, luckily for me nothing ethically contentious has happened in sport since my last post). In this post I will argue that contact with a defender shouldn’t prevent referees from punishing players for diving, I will then look at whether or not contact should that is often punished should be considered a foul when based on the Laws of the Game.

Diving is nothing new in the game, but what sparked my recent reflection on it was this incident between my beloved Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United a few weeks ago (skip to 1:09 for the incident):

Pheonix defender, Ben Sigmund was sent off for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity by fouling the aptly named Geronimo Neumann. Aside from the fact that Geronimo was  never going to get to the ball meaning that it wasn’t a goal scoring opportunity, I spent a week or so agonising over whether or not a free kick should have been awarded despite it clearly being a dive. What was problematic for me is the the fact that Sigmund put his hand on Geronimo’s shoulder shortly before he dived. It is an issue that often comes up: there is contact with the defender then the attacker throws himself to the ground (also known as the Gary Neville Paradox). So dear reader I was torn. Sigmund puts his hand on Geronimo’s shoulder, which I deemed to be a foul, yet it certainly wasn’t enough to cause the crafty Argentine to go to ground (well it was as he did go to ground, but you know what I mean, if someone puts there hand on your shoulder, even when you’re running at full speed it won’t make your legs crumple beneath you).

Don’t let players take advantage of having an advantage

An argument often put forward in favour of going to ground under minimal contact is that if players don’t do it they won’t get the free kick when an offence has been committed. I have a certain amount of sympathy with this view. After all if a player is fouled but don’t go to ground when it would be more advantageous to receive a free kick it seems common sense to exaggerate the the contact. A foul is a foul. Yet the thought of advocating diving didn’t sit well with me. The answer to my problems came in the form of The Guardians weekly comic strip You are the Ref. The format of You are the Ref is quite simple, readers send in their questions related to difficult refereeing decisions that may arise during a football match, each week three are chosen and drawn by Paul Trevellion and answers are provided by the  general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, Keith Hackett. It was Hackett’s reply to the first question in the above link that piqued my interest. Essentially he says that if an attacking player commits an offence after an advantage has been played then the attacking player should be punished, the play should not be called back for the original offence. 

In the case of Geronimo vs Sigmund no advantage was ever played, so arguably this doesn’t help my cause, but I think it should change the way we view such incidents. On occasions where a player gets clipped and then exaggerates the contact and dives referees ought to view the situation as the attacking player having an advantage which the opt not to take by committing the offence of diving. Perhaps someone might object that this will only encourage foul play by defenders as they will be punished less. This isn’t necessarily the case, if a foul is serious enough to warrant a card then the referee can award the card at the next stoppage in play, what it seems more likely to do is encourage the game to flow and hopefully make the job of referees easier. Rather than deliberating over whether or not there was contact they will deliberate over whether or not it was the contact that bought the attacking player down or if he chose to spurn the opportunity to continue by diving. Certainly there will still be errors, and some may object that it is impossible for a referee to tell whether a player goes down because of contact or because he chose to dive, whereas whether or not their is contact is more clear cut. This is a fair point and it may simply come down to the question of whether we want to eliminate contact from the game or whether we want to eradicate diving from the game. I  also think it is reasonable to think that this will encourage players to stay on their feet as it will give referees a greater scope for punishing divers than whether or not there is contact.

Every sport needs a pantomime villain

When is contact a foul?

I started off this post by discussing how I was torn between Geronimo diving and the fact that Sigmund fouled him. This is because it is accepted wisdom that if you put your hand on a player as Sigmund did it is a foul. I thought I’d dig a little deeper so I downloaded a copy of the Laws of the Game from FIFA’s website and made a beeline for Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct. According to Law 12:

A direct free kick can be awarded if a player commits any of the following offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:
  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
  • Trips or attempts to kick
  • Jumps at an opponent
  • Charges an opponent
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
  • Pushes an opponent
  • Tackles an opponent
A direct free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following offences:
  • Holds an opponent
  • Spits at an opponent
  • Handles the ball deliberately
Indirect free kick can be awarded if in the opinion of the referee a player:
  • Plays in a dangerous manner
  • Impedes the progress of an opponent
  • Prevents the goalkeeper releasing the ball
  • Commits any other offence not previously mentioned in law 12 for which play is stopped to caution or send off a player

From the list above the possible offences it seems that the possible fouls committed by Sigmund are holding a player or impeding the progress of an opponent. Obviously this will come down to interpretation but in the brief amount of time that Siigmund’s hand spent on Geronimo’s shoulder didn’t seem like he was holding him, nor did it seem to impede his progress rather Geronimo impeded his own progress. The majority of contentious diving decisions involve the legs of defenders as opposed to the arms, in which case the possible laws that are being violated seem most likely to be carelessly or recklessly tripping, kicking, or tackling an opponent or impeding the progress of an opponent. Once again whether someone is careless or reckless in tripping, or tackling a player is going to be subjective which could open up a can of worms. But there seem to be many cases where pundits will point to contact being made (the Gary Neville Paradox) that aren’t actually a case of a foul being committed, and for many more cases where there may be a foul, the attacking player will still have the ball and momentum with them, but will choose to dive, in which case they deserve to be punished.

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