After moving his foot to touch the stoically passive boot of Ciaran Clarke on Sunday afternoon Ashley Young adopted a familiar mid-air position. There he hung for a moment: arse up, arms out, head down, eyes looking sheepishly towards the referee. A symbol of modern football.
The pundits, commentators and fans reacted in concerted outrage as the victims were counted. The ref: duped. The game as a contest: spoiled. The Villa players: robbed. The Villa fans: worse still, cheated…
Except they weren’t really, they were instead on the receiving end of a skilful and rational deception that they were happy to benefit from only last year. How can they claim injury after prospering on the very same player’s very same actions? Young did not learn to dive at Old Trafford and nor did he learn at Villa Park, it has always been a part of his game. Part of the game.
Diving we have been told is a ‘dark art’ as welcome in our fair game as voodoo at a christening. But it is no more alien or dark than an illicitly pulled jersey, cleverly clipped heel or earnestly false roar of “our ball!”
It doesn’t take a full ad break to figure out that in Young’s case the potential bounty of a penalty and red card for Clarke weighs favourably against a piddling yellow card. It is not just the realm of dastardly continentals as is so often contested it is the path of the logically competitive to take advantage of the laws that favour you.
“Ah, but what about fairness?,” the poor sods ask. Well what about it? If you want a truly fair game, football is not for you and certainly not modern football – but that is an argument for another Super Sunday.
All team sports call on the individual team members to regard their own over others and with that comes a responsibility to do everything in your power to win, to borrow a usually cheerfully received platitude: to go that extra mile. That extra mile that can well take you into the moral grey area where you are invited to deceive to advance, rationally though it could be no more black and white.
Calculated deception is integral to football, to sport, to life! Though some don’t have to do it and a few are morally against it, others are foolish not to.
When done with skill, diving is merely the football equivalent of feigning interest in her pet dog on the first date. It’s not really a lie and you didn’t bring it up but the opportunity presented itself for you to put yourself in a better position than you would have been otherwise.
What did they expect you to do? Standing with their leg outstretched, inviting you to make contact, begging you to go down (we’re talking about football again). Of course afterwards they will feel cheated, betrayed even (still… football) and are entitled to feel so but in it’s in your interests to make the most of situations as they arise, in sport you are obliged not to be sentimental but ruthless. We all know the game that is being played.
As such, when executed properly, diving should be appreciated. Like a well-timed run or through ball, diving requires a keen sense of the moment and the positioning of others.
When a player bursts into the box only to end up farting through the air like a deflating balloon at the first contrived touch as Young did against Villa and QPR before them: the pass is shanked. A clever player doesn’t contort or collapse on contact but follows through with an instinctive yet false movement to get out of a situation that is unfavourable. It is at once both natural and unnatural. If they are truly adept they may even pass by without ever a mention.
Didier Hamann was one such quiet master of deception, falling to his knees under the slightest pressure in the middle of the pitch so as to break the opposition’s momentum when it was safe to do so. Sergio Busquets now does similar for Barcelona but is much less quiet about it and has added the more morally questionable act of feigning injury as well. Nevertheless, his actions are part of Barcelona’s rampant success, an otherwise ‘clean’ team regularly congratulated for their sportsmanship in it’s out of date conception.
Diving is unsporting only to those who define sportsmanship by the archaic Corinthian standards. We’re quick to drop the facade of ‘may the best man win’ when we watch a team who have an arrogant manager, a player who played for our rivals or a jersey we don’t like. Then we are only happy to wish defeat on them, ignoring fairness, skill or taste in overcoats.
It is necessary though that those ideas of sportsmanship are confined to the past for we are a long way from amateur Corinthians who played for the love of the sport. Football now is a chronic competition where every blade of grass and Opta stat is fought for with a weighted judgement.
Still we allow diving to be derided by people who instead long for the days when violence was rewarded. We allow them to mock the man who appreciates the intricacies of the game enough to seek out skill in its every aspect, let him be tarnished as a barefaced cheat because he understands more the importance of winning and prefer that he would ignore a chance to fulfil his goal. Somehow he is the coward. But that’s modern football for you.