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Leagues: EPL

Playacting In Soccer Will Continue As Long As Authorities Fail to Stamp It Out


There have been a plethora of occurrences in recent weeks when players have reacted in bad to minor provocation. Christian Benteke and Gaston Ramirez were both sent off in games against Tottenham Hotspur for needless, erratic lapses in concentration. Both of their teams were 1-0 up at the time before going on to lose 2-1 to the Londoners after their respective red cards

And yet, while the two aforementioned players in question have done plenty to cost their team a much needed three points, it’s the players on the end of those lapses—Ryan Mason and Jan Vertonghen respectively—that have received the baulk of the criticism for their subsequent reactions. Mason was shoved in the face by Benteke and Vertonghen kicked in the back of the knee by Ramirez.

The over exaggeration of physical contact from footballers can be embarrassing at times and it’s not something that grown men should be indulging in. But the long and short of it is that they do, because the powers that be have facilitated an environment in which it’s almost necessary. It’s why a player like James Tomkins clutched his face on Saturday when shoved in the chest by Kevin Mirallas. It’s why Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, two of England’s brightest young talents, took dives in their respective games last weekend.

It’d be admirable for a team and it’s players to take a collective stance on these undesirables, but it’s so commonplace, so engrained in the modern game’s fabric that said team could find themselves at a disadvantage for doing so.

Just look at the incident involving Jack Wilshere and Marouane Fellaini. The incensed England international threw his head towards the rangy Manchester United man right in front of referee Mike Dean, but because the Belgian stood tall, Wilshere was inexplicably let off the hook. If Fellaini had buckled to his knees clutching his face, the Arsenal man would have surely walked.

The Red Devils eventually triumphed 2-1, but United had gone on to lose that game via a key contribution from Wilshere—which they very easily could have done—you suspect Louis van Gaal wouldn’t have been overly pleased with Fellaini behind closed doors. After all, why not accentuate the contact if he’s been head-butted? In the case of Vertonghen, why not go down if someone boots you in the back of the knee?

In a game which is renowned for hinging on minuscule margins, under pressure players and managers need to conjure every edge possible. And at this juncture, this is clearly an area in which some are manufacturing an advantage. It many not be gentlemanly, it may not be in the traditional spirit of the game, but if making the most of an opponents’ erratic temperament helps a team pick up three points, will supporters really care?

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but one that has materialized as a result of referees who are under immense pressure and scrutiny. It’s something the canniest players tap into and take advantage of.

Indeed, it’s rare to see somebody sent off unless it’s completely clear cut or, as the incident involving Fellaini astutely displays, unless the player in question goes down. Rolling around on the floor is almost a pre-requisite if a referee is to administer a red card or indeed, a second yellow for a miscellaneous offence.

It’s something former referee Howard Webb touched upon with an interview with BBC Sport back in 2012:

If people cry wolf too often then there is a possibility we will not react as we need to do.

If we come under criticism for stopping the game too many times for doctors or physios to enter the field of play then maybe referees will be inclined not to stop the game.

So just as players have adapted their game to learn to manipulate the unsure officiating, they also must adapt to let incitement pass without getting themselves into mischief. Both Benteke and Ramirez, experienced international players, could have walked away from their respective situations and their team would have most probably won the game.

Ultimately, that’s the bottom line in this issue. Players have been playacting for years now and while pundits and supporters alike are quick to castigate them, next to nothing has been done by football’s governing body to try and rid it from the game. Like it or not, it’s part of the make-up of European football and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.

Hull City boss Steve Bruce bemoaned Vertonghen’s reaction in the aforementioned incident. But you can guarantee the Tigers boss would have happily seen one of his players accentuate a similar contact if it meant his side picked up a critical three points. Until something is put in place by the higher-ups at the FA, for the vast majority the ends will always justify the means.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball

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  1. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    November 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    It’s easy to see acting on TV as they replay it again and again with different angles, in slow-mo, etc. A ref has to make a snap decision – sometimes in a poor position in regards to the play.

    Maybe more replay can solve it (though no one wants the game to slow down more)?

  2. Smokey Bacon

    November 25, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Retroactive punishment is the only way to police this stuff. It will never be eliminated as its part of the game. Always has been. Who can say they have not liked it when someone on their team has cheated to win a penalty etc?

  3. goatslookshifty

    November 25, 2014 at 7:55 am

    The subjectivity of a referee’s decision has to remain in the game. Sometimes they’ll be wrong but video replay or NFL type reviews is not the way to go. I have no problem with a player being banned for a match if he is found to blatantly dive (like Ross Barkley vs West Ham this past Saturday). Judging play-acting is a tough one though. I’ve clipped my ankle on the side of a table and fell down in agony but a few minutes later been okay. Diving is a lot easier to judge.

  4. Mark Williamson

    November 25, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Very simply, diving is cheating. I would not want a manager to accept it as a way to win or a player to make it part of the game. Just as important, you are cheating the fans. Stamp it out at whatever measure-video replay after the game or keep the cards flying.

  5. Pakapala

    November 24, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    Unfortunately I think you completely undermine your point by pointing out the Wilshere incident.
    Like you wrote yourself, the ref failed to properly punish Wilshere. In the other cases mentioned the refs did the right thing because of the exageration from the victims. So why is it the victims should get blamed here and not the culprits of the fouls?

    Also I think you’re mixing cheating (diving when not touched) with getting the ref’s attention on a foul commited on you that the ref would not have seen otherwise. Long may it continue that the victims of dirty plays bring shame to the real culprits of sneaky, unacceptable fouls.

    • Matt Jones

      November 25, 2014 at 7:56 am

      That’s not what I was getting at. The point is that playacting is often necessary to get the right decision.

      If Fellaini had of gone down rolling around Arsenal would have gone down to ten men and Wilshere would have had nobody to blame but himself.

  6. strongbad

    November 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Does the MLS still fine players after a game for diving?

    they should start suspending or giving post match yellow cards . just dont fine them minuscule amounts that the EPL players can afford to pay off.

  7. jtm371

    November 24, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    The headline sums it up. Until players start to get yellows or reds for acting it will never change. It is the scourge of modern football. If the rules change the refs can not protect the stars if it is Karl Henry or Wayne Rooney they must enforce equally.

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