Saturday, 3 November 2007

Some still call it 'diving'

First published in Sons View, 03 November 2007, Dumbarton -v- Arbroath

I admit I did a double take when someone started up a conversation about the evils of ‘simulation’ in football the other day. My instant assumption was that it must have something to do with Gordon Brown pretending to be thrilled when England win a sporting occasion, just so that he doesn’t offend voters down south.

But no. This coy term refers to what used to be known rather more prosaically as ‘cheating’ in the days of footballing yore – specifically the well crafted dive to secure a penalty, free kick or other unfair advantage at a crucial stage in the game.

There’s no doubt that there has been an increase in such unsporting activity in recent years, especially in the higher echelons of football. I mean it never happens at Dumbarton, does it? Not with our lads anyway; though I wouldn’t presume to speak for our noble opponents.

In all seriousness though, the Scottish FA is to be applauded for seeking new ways of tackling practices that bring little glory to the game and much annoyance on the terraces. The ‘sin bin’ idea was never really a starter, but a ‘name and shame’ list is more feasible. SFA chief executive Gordon Smith is also willing to take on FIFA over the issue of rescinding yellow cards for players who have been the victims of an opponent’s dive. Good for him.

Two high profile incidents have brought the ‘simulation’ debate into the spotlight in recent weeks. One involves Hearts midfielder Saulius Mikoliunas’ winning of a dubious penalty for Lithuania during Scotland's Euro 2008 campaign – together with what looked like exaggerated falls by Andrius Velicka and Tomas Danilevicius early in the same Hampden encounter.

More recently there has been the case of AC Milan goalkeeper Dida, and his ludicrous antics when gently (but completely inexcusably) happy-slapped by an overwrought Bhoys fan during the climactic moment of Celtic’s Champions League triumph at Parkhead. In that instance, EUFA had the good sense to hand down a two-match tournament ban.

To their credit, Milan also refused to make capital out of the incident and admitted that Dida was wrong, despite an inevitable appeal against the punishment. In contrast, the reaction of some clubs when their stars are caught bang-to-rights on the camera is every bit as much part of the problem as what happens on the pitch.

But let’s get back to the word itself. I suppose ‘simulation’ has come into vogue as a synonym for diving and feigning injury because in the days of celebrity soccer posing, footballers may be just as interested in the outside chance of an Oscar nomination as they are in winning a dodgy spot kick. Plus the inventiveness of their role-playing can be jaw-droppingly varied.

The hammiest Hollywood hustler would certainly have been proud of Dida’s performance at Celtic Park, when he spent several seconds vigorously chasing the invading fan, before suddenly discovering his mortal wound and tumbling to the earth like a scythed bear. All of which left him no alternative but to accept that proffered stretcher. It was a horribly cynical and absurdly comical moment.

The SFA’s response to this kind of thing (and let’s face it, it happens at all levels and in all countries, even if the visibility and temptation my be greater in big money games), is to target the offence of “simulation when committed by players who escape sanction from the referee” for a trial period from 1 January 2008.

Match referees will review footage of every televised match, and identify incidents where cases of blatant cheating occurred. If the player was spotted and punished by the ref, the SFA will add three penalty points to his record. If the player was also yellow carded in the same match for a separate offence, he will be regarded as having been sent off and will incur an automatic one match suspension. Similarly, officials can retract yellow cards.

It’s a bold move, and one that may still not go ahead if others overseeing the game have their way. Smaller clubs might also protest that it is one rule for the rich and televised, and one rule for the rest – like us down at SHS. But the thinking is that changing the culture of TV spotlighted football is a key component part of regaining respect in all corners of the game. For what it’s worth, I think this makes sense.

That said, we could do with a bit of humour too. So nominations for the coveted Rock Oscars will be gratefully received.

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