Is the “dark art” really as exotic as some like to pretend it is?

by Daniel Collins

Much has been made in recent days of Ashley Young‘s penalty-winning dive from the game between Manchester United and his former club, Aston Villa, at Old Trafford last Sunday; there has been shock, horror and moral outrage.

Ashley Young’s dive did not surprise me, however. He is a serial diver, after all, and was more than happy to go down when he saw fit even whilst donning the claret and blue of Villa in the past. What surprised me most about this whole unfortunate episode is, in fact, the purported surprise of the reacting footballing community intent on singling Young out as some sort of scapegoat. Can fans and observers of English football seriously continue to play the role of  unexpecting dupes when incidents like this occur with such frequency in the modern English game? It is not as if instances of simulation are anything new.

I sense there to be a certain level of sanctimonious and disingenuous victimhood involved in the playing out of such a role.  As I read through some of the commentary on this episode,  it dawned on me that there still remains a startling level of denial amongst the English footballing fraternity with regard to the culture of diving that not only exists within English football, but steadfastly permeates it. To my bewilderment, the Professional Footballers’ Association chairman, Clarke Carlisle ( a former team-mate of Young’s at Watford who, worse, did not even see the incident against Aston Villa before feeling qualified to comment on Young’s propensity to dive), went as far as denying that Young was a diver:

I wouldn’t say he is or has been prone to falling over. He is quick and slight so it doesn’t take much contact to make him go over.

Let us not beat around the bush; Ashley Young is a diver.

To profess surprise or shock at something is to allege a lack of expectation or to imply a rarity of occurrence of some event that has just been witnessed, but the fact is that not a week goes by without some form of play-acting or simulation staining a game of football in England.

The most distasteful element, however, of the sense of outraged denial that inevitably follows those instances of diving deemed significant enough for further critique is what I perceive to be a smug undercurrent of casual or veiled xenophobia. I encountered this mentality – one of feeling cheated by some alien phenomenon – perfectly encapsulated in a comment piece by Stuart James of the Guardian. James wrote of the Young incident:

It should be acknowledged that Young is not alone in practising the darker arts, although, rightly or wrongly, we expect better from an England international who has been brought up playing football in a culture where the offence is frowned upon by players, managers and supporters. It is certainly not in keeping with United’s traditions, which perhaps helps to explain Ferguson‘s [critical] reaction.

I cannot for a second believe that a football writer and former professional in the game could be so naïve to believe this. Embark on a brief hunt through YouTube and you will find with ease videos of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Gary Neville, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole all taking extremely suspect tumbles. These players all were or are established and respected England international footballers; some have even captained their country at the highest level. Nor is this list by any means exhaustive. Even former England international, Dave Clement, was at it in the 1970s, long before the English game developed its international flavour with greater numbers of participants from abroad. And you can be sure he was not the only one either. Three of the aforementioned were trained within “United’s traditions”, and it is not even as if they are the only Manchester United players who have ever been guilty of simulation.

Surely it is then delusive to claim one expects better of England internationals or Manchester United players – unfortunately, diving by top professionals is something for which we should be fully prepared – and even worse to suggest that these players were brought up within a culture where the offence of diving is frowned upon. For me, James’ point of view is a subtle attempt, perhaps motivated by a benign nostalgia for some imagined English heyday, to shift a significant portion of the responsibility to foreign footballing cultures. Diving has been as much a part of English footballing culture as it has been of other footballing cultures for years. Diving is rampant in English football and – even if Alex Ferguson admonished (if one could call it that) his player on this particular occasion – managers routinely fail to condemn their players who are guilty of it. It is not so much a “dark art” as it is a tolerated and accepted tactic.

Gary Neville, in his otherwise commendable Ford Monday Night Football analysis for Sky Sportsinsinuated, in somewhat metaphorical terms, that the prevalence of diving in the English game was a phenomenon rooted ultimately in foreign influence:

The country’s changing. Twenty years ago, a piece of bread got brought into a restaurant, you got a lump of butter with it. Now you get olives, oil and vinegar.

In an earlier Daily Mail piece of his from the 8th of April, provoked by a dive by another England international player, Andy Carroll, whilst playing for Liverpool in a game against Newcastle United a week earlier, Neville associated a fantasy English footballing culture of days of old, purported to be the real thing, with the concepts of toughness, honesty, purity and innocence he enjoyed whilst playing football in his youth. Of course, FIFA govern the game globally and UEFA administer it on a European level, but their failure to clamp down on diving in the game cannot be attributed to some wicked influence of “Latin culture” therein, nor can it be blamed on some alleged moral weakness in their collective character as a consequence of their non-Englishness. The FA and Premier League are just as guilty of any failing on the same front. They have had ample time to clamp down on diving if they were first prepared to acknowledge its prevalence and roots.

Neville furthermore appears to contradict himself when he recalls his former coaches at United - Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd and Eric Harrison – asking their players, “When are you going to learn?” when he and his team-mates found the simulation of their counterparts (only the continental ones are singled out, of course) hard to stomach. Such rhetorical instruction from English coaches implicitly condoned diving. Of course it could be argued the coaches were merely encouraging their players to adapt to a method of playing more suited to advancing through European competition, but if the notion of simulation was really so alien and repugnant to their English moral and cultural compasses so as not to forsake them for a competitive will to win, they would not have educated their players in such fashion, nor would there have been any need to utilise such tactics in the supposedly-innocent English game. If an aversion or immunity to diving was genuinely so intrinsic to the moral fibre of the English footballing character, it would long have been stamped out by those in its dug-outs. Never would it have gotten to the point where the authorities now need to overhaul refereeing in order to deal with it.

If anything, simulation is an inevitable consequence of the game’s professional competitive nature (unimpeded, of course, by lack of competent assistance for referees); it is not the consequence of interaction with what might be cast as the foreign game or the advent of foreign players taking to English shores. The crucial distinction between the “pure” football Neville might have played in his youth and the football he later played for Manchester United was not necessarily that he came up against a greater number of players from foreign backgrounds in latter years; rather, it was that the stakes in latter years were very much heightened in terms of needing to win at all costs. In his youth, he was partaking in a pastime for fun. In his latter years, he was a participant in a professional global industry governed by a ruthless business ethos. His job was solely to win. Within such conditions, a professional will do whatever it takes to win – not just those with “Latin culture” in their blood, as if they are more culturally prone to cheating or something –  whether this means “bending” the rules or not. Tainted sports like cycling and athletics spring to mind.

At least, though, Neville had the honesty and forthrightness to correct Ford Monday Night Football presenter Ed Chamberlin‘s naïve suggestion that diving was just “creeping into the game” and that there were merely “a number of instances of it” by highlighting that this “epidemic” has long been very much part of the game in England – even admitting to having dived himself during his own playing days – and pointed out that Young “did what 95 per cent of players do”.

In fairness to him, he generally spoke a lot of sense, although I also took issue with his suggestion that the introduction of retrospective investigation and punishment panels would cause “anarchy” and “trouble” for the game. Anarchy is the absence of proper or competent governance and, in this sense, the current state of football is already one of anarchy; diving is a form of anarchy in the game as it is. The solution to this problem is enhanced refereeing aided by additional assistants or the use of technology if needs be, with free kicks awarded for all fouls, reckless tackles and physical impediments whether a player goes to ground or not. A player should never have to feel the need to go to ground in order to win a free kick if he is being impeded in some form or another.

The footballing authorities could easily stamp diving out of the game with retrospective investigation and punishment panels if they were prepared to acknowledge just how much it pervades English footballing culture. Until they do so, nothing will change in English football. Paying supporters and those who analyse the game are also complicit in the denial. If fans genuinely have a problem with the commercialised route modern football has taken – of which simulation is an unfortunate consequence – they can always set the ball rolling on a solution by cutting that Sky Sports subscription.

2 Responses

  1. Craig says:

    I think the most interesting thing about your article is what it says about broader English culture. The whole ‘stiff upper lip’ self-congratulatory moral romanticism is frankly bollocks. I’d love to know more about the diving culture in the lower leagues, I think by looking at it there you get more of a pure representation of English football. Because United are the most marketable/attractive brand almost anything controversial we/they do is exaggerated and diluted by commentators with rating-seeking agendas, or just old fashioned chips on shoulders. I have a friend who strongly supports a lower league team and has a vehement hatred for United, taking joy in berating United for the slightest slip from the traditional moral code of ‘the English game’. He still holds a grudge against a premier league player for diving against them when he played for a lower league side on loan. But if he dived when he was in the lower leagues, when the prizes at stake were, realistically, much smaller then you’d have to presume it’s endemic there too. If there’s ‘anarchy’ at the top level you’ve looked at, I think the claim is a bit vulnerable unless you look at the broader domestic picture.

    As for the suggested boycott- Sky, BBC/ITV and ESPN must love it when there’s controversy, as it gets their product free, heightened exposure through people talking about it. I’d love to know if Sky have a lobby preventing common scenical moves for technology and more punishment for cheating.

    1. You make some excellent points. The concluding observation/musing is especially worthy of consideration. You’d wonder…

      Although it may seem somewhat stark or over-the-top, I suppose the suggested boycott could simply be viewed in terms of amounting to a valid attempt to register protest by stifling the main source of income (revenue from Sky Sports broadcasting and sponsorship agreements) for those who govern the game in England (the FA and Premier League) with the aim of forcing them to consider tackling the problem properly.

      Ultimately, we live in a consumerist world where capital governs and if challenging this primary agenda in the pocket where it hurts is what it takes to communicate a message and enact change, then such a seemingly-extreme proposition is surely a legitimate one.

      Of course, such an expression of dissatisfaction would have to be orchestrated en masse, which is where its potential effectiveness might suffer due to both mass indifference amongst those who “consume” the game as a commidity and the fact that being a football supporter, by definition, involves actually following, or watching, your team play. Such an act of protest would then seem somewhat counterintuitive to many unprepared to make the necessary sacrifice to cure the game long-term. Of course, that’s entirely understandable. I don’t want to get on any moral high horses myself and pretend to be above human weakness.

      FC United of Manchester are just one example of fans taking affairs into their own hands, however, and they have built their club around their own ethos, rather than tolerating the over-riding corporate one. Whether or not that means FC United players are less likely to dive than their counterparts further up the league pyramid, of course, is another question…

      I do attempt to attribute diving as consequence of heightened or professional competition (combined with insufficient governance), however, rather than just money’s strict influence on the game alone. I imagine professionals at the top of their game in most sports will “bend” the rules if they see an advantage in it.

      I mentioned cycling and athletics – two sports regularly riddled with doping scandals – but English observers (not exclusively, mind you) often attempt to contrast “cheat-free” rugby from “foreign-influenced” football too, for example. Is casting rugby as a cheat-free sport at all honest though, or is it just another example of this English cultural and moral sanctimony being unable to admit that what one might view as a “British” or “post-colonial” game – still played largely within the confines of the former British Empire – is as riddled with cheating as any other professional sport, be its origins foreign or be it subjected to external influence?

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