Stiff Upper Lip, Chaps
Feature by Tom Chivers
Updated Saturday, 29th September 2007
Diving, simulation, whatever you want to call it: it's the European disease. Or perhaps I should say the rest-of-the-world disease, because everyone but us seems to be up to it: obviously no upstanding British or Irish lad would ever sink so low.Of course, before the advent of the Premiership, when the perfidious Antipodean Rupert Murdoch's money started attracting wave after money-grabbing wave of mercenary foreigners to this scepter'd isle, the mere idea of falling over while you still had the use of your legs was completely unheard of. Who could forget the English heroics of Euro 1968, when Alan Mullery refused to go down in the box despite being hit repeatedly over the head with a spade and eventually shot by Yugoslav centreback Milan Damjanović?
Of course, it's ridiculous to suggest that home-nations players don't dive. A rare recent(ish) highlight for the English national side was a 1-0 victory over Argentina in Sapporo during the 2002 World Cup; quite apart from the fact that England were under the cosh for the entire match, something that is rarely mentioned is that St Michael of Owen took a dramatic tumble following what might charitably be called "light contact", and more accurately be called "no contact", from Mauricio Pochettino to win the decisive penalty. Joe Cole has had difficulty staying on his feet since he was a teenager; presumably he learnt to walk at a young age, but he seems to be spending his footballing career trying to forget. Paul Scholes, one of those rare Manchester United players who seems to have avoided the visceral loathing of the entire nation, has gone down easily throughout his long career - most recently when Massimo Ambrosini breathed heavily on him during the ill-fated second leg of last season's Champions League semi-final. Even Stevie Gerrard is guilty occasionally, although I don't like to think about that and am going to gloss over it rapidly before I have to face my conflicted feelings.
That said, I think it is fair to say that the prevailing attitude towards diving is wildly different here to in most other countries. I've read commentators who claim that this is due to a sense among continental players and fans that it is somehow "clever", fooling a referee with a well-timed tumble much as you would fool an opponent with a deft feint or swift stepover. I wouldn't know about this, not having lived in any of those nations; but I would say that the main reason that British views are so different from continental ones is our attitude to masculinity.
We like our heroes rugged and uncomplicated, impervious to pain and impassive in appearance. We love hard-man centrebacks who look like they're carved out of stone - Tony Adams' startling resemblance to a particularly disgruntled Easter Island statue doubtless helped the booze-addled donkey-man find an enduring place in the nation's hearts - or central midfielders who run forty kilometres a game without ever controlling the football. Tricksy wide men are viewed with the sort of distrust usually reserved for sex offenders or advertising executives, while meatheaded centre-forwards with the first touch of a drunken giraffe are clutched to our collective bosom as long as they are willing to "get stuck in", or at the very least "put it about a bit" and "get their knees dirty". It's an indication of the way our national tastes run that, when Wayne Rooney quite clearly planted a studded boot deep into Ricardo Carvalho's man-berries during the quarter-final of Germany 2006, the nation was outraged not with Ol' Spud-Face but with Cristiano Ronaldo, whose only crime was to wink girlishly at the bench. Quel domage! Hang the grease-haired little nancy from the highest tree, say I.
Of course, none of this is really a criticism of the British footballing way. Powerful tackling and full-blooded, fire-lunged commitment are a large part of what makes the Premier League exciting - and it is still exciting, whatever cynical hacks like myself might say with calculated world-weariness, and while sometimes the technical level is not all it could be it is certainly improving. And diving does seem to be on the increase, which I think we can all agree is not a good thing; I'm not arguing with that. What I worry, though, is that our need for footballers to be all alpha-male could lead to someone getting quite badly hurt. I imagine all Liverpool fans remember, in the early days of Gerrard's first-team career, the terrifyingly bad tackles he put in on first George Boateng at the beginning of the 01-02 season and then Gary Naysmith in 02-03. The Boateng one in particular was horrifying - the then Villa player's knee seemed to bend backwards, and to this day I don't know how he escaped serious injury. Ged Houllier, apparently channelling the spirit of Roy Keane, accused Boateng of "acting" (I never took drama at school, so I missed the bit where they teach you how to bend your femur through a forty-degree angle); Gerrard, thankfully, was a bigger man than his manager and made a genuinely contrite apology. My point is that this sort of tackle is almost encouraged by our British love of blood and thunder. Diving may be girly, but no-one's career ever got ended by a particularly theatrical dive; and besides, footballers are, generally speaking, a bit girly. By all means deplore "simulation", but be even-handed - admit that dangerous tackling is a blight on the game too. And I hate to say it, but if you want to see Real Men™ play sport, go and watch rugby.
Rotation: An addendum
I didn't want to go in to the whole Torres/Benitez/squad rotation debate, because it has been extensively covered by the press, not least by my colleague Adam Bryant on these pages; and as has been pointed out, Benitez be doing something right, with all the trophies and whatnot. That said, there was a horrible inevitability about young Fernando's heroics on Tuesday night. I don't know about you, but to me a hattrick in the Carling Cup somehow feels like a waste.