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Diving opinion depends on culture

This Barclays Premier League weekend left two significant impressions: one was a tactical observation about the way big teams go about winning, while the other one lingered rather more painfully – just as Robert Huth’s stud marks on Luis Suarez’s chest probably did, even as the Uruguayan was taking his ridiculous dive towards the end of the match.

Let’s get the first, non-controversial one out of the way: for all our pre-match tactical talk about Manchester United’s attacking formation, width and Rooney’s best position, they actually won the game at Newcastle with goals from set plays. Sure, they attacked from the outset and posed problems all along but, a bit like a dominant rugby team slotting over penalty after penalty, the goals that ultimately won the game did not come from open play.

Alan Curbishley used to routinely remind us of the high percentage of goals in this league that come from set plays. He doesn’t need to anymore – the evidence is there in front of us. Take Arsenal, for instance: their play this season will once more be typically free-flowing and inventive, with Santi Cazorla now choreographing it, but set-pieces have already made the difference for them between good results (they kept West Ham out from set-plays and won) and bad results (Chelsea scored twice from dead-ball situations). We may appear at times to be banging on about this in our pre-shows and post-match analysis, but good set-piece defending may well end up winning someone the title.

Now, the tricky part of last weekend: the diving debate.

We now know that the FA will take no action against Robert Huth (or for that matter Cheik Tiote and Robin van Persie) for alleged foul play or violent conduct in the Liverpool-Stoke and Newcastle-Manchester United games because the referees in question said they had observed (and therefore handled) the incidents at the time. We also know that there is no procedure in place in England (as there actually is in Scotland) to retroactively cite players for simulation. Credit must go then to Andy Townsend, who kept his composure while all around him were baying for the blood of either Suarez or Huth, and immediately remarked on air that it seemed incongruous how one could possibly be retroactively punished but not the other under current regulations.

Believe me there was plenty of baying going on and most of it, as our Fanzone team later told us, was being directed at Suarez.

Harry Redknapp had written in his Sunday newspaper column about Suarez being denied clear-cut penalties because of “cry wolf” syndrome and it is fair to say the player probably should have earned a legitimate spot-kick against Stoke. Then he committed his aberration with 15 minutes left in the game and we were soon studying replay after damning replay.

Not surprisingly, Tony Pulis used his post-match interview to furiously advocate three-match bans for divers. Yet as he was doing that, we were studying an incident involving Gareth Bale in the Spurs-Villa game that might have earned the Welshman similar condemnation had Mr Pulis seen it.

For the record, everyone in the studio slammed Huth for his apparent stamp but it was worth noting that the Suarez discussion produced the most passion. So what is it about diving that has made it the biggest no-no of modern-day transgressions in the English game?

Note I said English there for a reason. We all feel uncomfortable when anyone says diving is something only done by “the foreigners” when that is patently not the case. However, it is fair to talk about foreigners in terms of the diving debate because I believe there is an incorrect assumption being made in some quarters and it is one that may delay any solution to the problem.

We often hear British pundits saying players will stop diving if they are publicly exposed and shamed. Well, in my opinion, that would only happen if everyone shared the same cultural values as those Brits in question and I’m not so sure that is the case.

To the above-mentioned pundits, diving is “abhorrent” or “reprehensible” – the same words they use when they talk about, for instance, spitting. To those brought up in other football cultures, such as Spanish and South American, simulation is viewed quite differently. What they typically see as abhorrent is the use of physical brutality or bullying on the pitch to gain an advantage in what they perceive to be a game of skill.

This I know because I checked with Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, who addressed cultural differences in football earlier this year in a column he wrote for SKY Sports. In it, he spoke of his belief that football may be seen as a working-class game in Britain but its rules and standards evolved in the public schools of an era when team sports were seen as a way of developing physical and moral strength rather than as a pathway to success.

I am paraphrasing Guillem here but he went on to describe the traditional cultural identity of the successful sportsman in his native Spain as being that of the ‘picaresque’ or folk hero who gets ahead of the game by subverting authority and challenging the social order; highly skilled, yes, but a loveable rogue at times, not averse to a touch of rule-bending.

There is probably some wild generalisation going on here but my point is that some players will not be easily shifted from their basic football culture. Like every debate in sport, the diving issue is highly nuanced. For instance, it tends to be fast, quick-footed players who go down most commonly in the box, so are we going to question all of them? Similarly, does Arsene Wenger still rail as passionately against strong tackling now that he once again has some players who can look after themselves in the pell-mell of a Premier League encounter?

There is just under a fortnight until we get back into the Matchday Live studio for a new weekend of BPL action but I’m willing to bet that when we do, diving will once again be discussed. I’m also willing to bet that when we get to the end of the weekend we will still be discussing it. I suspect it is not going away any time soon because football culture isn’t something you change overnight.

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