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In Defense of Diving

Jon Busch was having quite a game.  The San Jose keeper had made a few really good saves and the ‘Quakes were hanging on against Real Salt Lake.  Despite being outplayed, it looked like the home visiting team could grab a point from the match to help their playoff run.  Then in the 61st minute Alvaro Saborio was played through with a great pass and made a move to avoid the San Jose defenders.  Bobby Burling came in front of Saborio, missed the ball but looked to clip his thigh, and down went the RSL striker.  The official pointed to the spot, sent off Burling, and Real Salt Lake converted the penalty then punished the 10-men side by scoring three more goals.

Problem was, Saborio was barely touched.  He fell in the box with little to no contact and got the call.  And San Jose was mad at the time and mad after the game: “Our boys are putting the effort in up until that point,” said Busch according to the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s frustrating that a call like that changes the whole game when we are busting our tails for points right now.”

Diving has been an issue in MLS this year, most notably in regards to two questionable calls received by Charlie Davies to set up penalty kicks, including one against RSL.  Steve Davis, one of the beat’s best writers, points out that this particular incident puts Jason Kreis in an awkward spot due to his past advocacy against diving.  To his credit, Kreis has said he would talk to Saborio about the incident after re-watching a replay.

But in this case Kreis is wrong.  Diving always has been and always will be an integral part of soccer, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When soccer fans think of diving, they think of leagues like Italy’s Serie A, where players flop and fall all over the place in hopes of duping referees into giving them calls.  Diving is one of the major reasons cited why American sports fans will not embrace soccer; it’s dishonest, cheating, and wimpy they say.  The Brazilian women’s soccer team was roundly booed by German fans in their match against the U.S. due to some questionable injuries.  And ESPN even got into the action with a funny take on the issue with a Sportscenter ad.

So why do players dive?  In his excellent book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones links diving in Italian soccer to a deeper hatred of authority; players dive because they know the deck is stacked in favor of the big clubs and maybe, if they can convince a referee they have been fouled, it will make up for the other times the foul was not called.  It’s a matter of justice: referees are either corrupt or incompetent so it behooves a player to try and overcome this natural disadvantage.

I think we can all agree that officials in MLS can be, at times, incompetent and I am sure San Jose fans are arguing David Gantar falls into that category.  Does that justify “cheating” though?  Sports are not built on equality, but on competitive advantage.  Not all teams and players are created equal, and the “lesser” ones have to do what they can to keep up.  In some cases, this is blatantly illegal (prohibited steroids), immoral (throwing games), or both (buying off players).  But in other cases, players use human shortcomings to even an advantage.  Keepers will slowly walk by a player about to take a penalty and whisper something to unsettle them; defenders will often clip or subtly use their hands to unbalance a player when they know an official isn’t looking.  Small tricks are a part of any sport, soccer included.

Diving also isn’t for soccer alone.  Watch American football and you will see a wide receiver who can’t catch up to a pass fall if the defender makes any contact.  The best NBA players are usually those who can best “draw” fouls and act as if they have been horribly assaulted.  Even taking charges in basketball often means falling a little easier on contact than someone will admit.  We call these things the cerebral part of sports: a player knowing how to gain an advantage using the rules.  Ask Kobe Bryant when he positions his arms inside a defender to get a hand check call.

But let’s take the specific case of Saborio.  Is his dive justified?  There did look to be contact with Burling, probably not enough to cause a complete fall but a little.  Burling also ran in front of Saborio to try and block his advance, a really clumsy play that easily could have been an obvious foul.  So while the actual result was not a foul, it certainly could have been.  To wildly speculate, maybe Saborio saw what was happening and anticipated colliding with Burling, so to protect himself he positioned his body to fall.  Remember, his teammate months earlier was seriously injured while trying to score, and Saborio himself is recovering from offseason knee surgery.  His dive may have been nothing more than an attempt to protect himself from serious injury.

In a perfect world, diving would be unnecessary.  Referees would make every call correctly, players would play a graceful style of soccer, and serious injuries would be a rarity.  In reality, soccer is beset by human failings, and a smart player will use whatever is in his arsenal to counteract these frailties.  After all, we expect nothing less: if RSL had drawn that game, ink would have been spilled about their shortcomings.  In an imperfect world that demands perfection, shortcuts must sometimes be taken.  Should it go without punishment? At times, no.  But we have to admit it is a necessary and understandable part of the game.