Graham Ruthven: Is it finally time to accept diving as part of the game?

Moral outrage over simulation is rooted in more than just an intolerance of cheating. It’s about masculinity, says Graham Ruthven

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We all know the routine by now – close enough to imply contact, but far enough away to throw your legs back with just the right level of dramatic flair, followed by a pleading glance at the referee. This is how to pull off the perfect dive in football and it’s something we have all grown accustomed to in recent years.

For as long as there has been diving in football, there has been condemnation of it. There are many forms of foul play in the sport, but nothing prompts the moral outrage that diving does. See the reaction to Anthony Martial’s perceived flop against Everton on Sunday, or Crystal Palace’s questionable award of a penalty for a foul on Wilfred Zaha on the same day.

Once seen as a toxic tainting of the English game from abroad, it is now far too prevalent across the board for that to hold any credence as an argument. “It’s crept into our game lately, but it’s a foreign thing,” former Everton defender Alan Stubbs once claimed. “They speak good English, it’s not as if they don’t understand what they’re doing.”

Presumably someone has since pointed Stubbs’ in the direction of Ashley Young or Dele Alli or one of the many homegrown divers now playing in the Premier League. The point of no return has been passed. No matter how much it is yearned for, the eradication of diving from football will never happen.

It will be a part of the sport for evermore.

So with this in mind, is it time for diving to be accepted as a skill, maybe even an art, in its own right? There will always be a section of the sport that sees diving as an act of shameful deception, but surely there is something to be appreciated in the nuance and craft that goes into the perfectly executed dive?

After all, it’s not easy. Have you ever tried to pull off a convincing dive? There’s a reason only the professionals even attempt it – because only they have the skill level required to make it look real. Timing, agility, creativity and courage in your convictions – a good dive is just as skilful as anything else performed on a football pitch.

To truly grasp the art of diving it’s important to understand why players do it in the first place. As defenders got bigger and stronger, more physically imposing, the smaller, more diminutive types, the ones we pay to watch, needed to find a way to stop themselves from being flattened.

In a way, it was a method of levelling the playing field. Of wrestling back the advantage physicality had given their opponents. This dynamic is still something that exists to this day, with referees frequently unwilling to provide skilful dribblers the protection they deserve.

Upon deconstruction of the stigma around diving, it becomes clear that moral outrage over it is rooted in more than just an intolerance of cheating. It’s about masculinity. Gary Lineker once made the suggestion that divers should be shown a ‘pink card’ for throwing themselves to the ground too easily. Indeed, to stay on your feet, even when your feet are being cleaned out from underneath you, is to be a man.

At least, that’s the belief held by many.

It has been suggested that the implementation of VAR technology across the sport could help eradicate diving. But VAR is already in use in the Bundesliga and La Liga, as well as during the World Cup in the summer. Has a downturn in simulation been noted there? It would be ironic if it had been, flipping the argument about foreigners bringing diving to England, but alas, it has not.

We are all guilty of applying double standards when it comes to diving. How many times has been it uttered that a player should have gone down only for that to be followed moments later by a condemnation of a flop to the floor? Football, as a whole, can’t quite make its mind up on diving, but by this point the question shouldn’t be over whether it can ever be accepted, not whether it should be eradicated.

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