Should Diving Be Considered an Art Form?

Does nobody appreciate the craft of the perfect dive? Perhaps it's time to reconsider football's dark art.

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Sep 9 2015, 1:48pm

Photo: PA IMAGES

The absent-minded sprinter, the skydive, the Oscar nominee, the Ashley Young, the cynical missile, the interpretative artist... there are many types of dive in football, but only one term for those who perform them: the cheat. Although some fans certainly have more colourful terms for such players.

But has football got it wrong when it comes to the perception of diving? According to WikiHow (the complete guide to everything, from how to cook spaghetti to how to pass a urine drug test) the first step to pulling off the perfect dive is to rid oneself of all dignity – and that pretty much sums up how diving is regarded.

But is that fair? Or should diving in fact be considered an art form? For many it is simply an act of shameful deception – a combination of acting, begging, lying and cheating – but when it is done well diving is a nuanced skill. Is there nobody out there who appreciates the craft of the perfect dive?

There certainly aren't many diving sympathisers at the top of the sport. Not a single World Cup, major tournament or new season goes past without renewed calls for referees to crack down on simulation. Fans are slightly more congenial when it comes to their treatment of a diver, although only when it suits them. The same supporters who lambast that one rival winger who always hits the floor too easily lament their own players for not being smart enough to make the most of any contact in the box.

Jurgen Klinsmann was a famed diver, even acknowledging the habit in his goal celebrations | Photo: PA Images

Perhaps to appreciate diving it's necessary to truly understand why players do it. As footballers get bigger and stronger, smaller more diminutive players have to find a way to stop themselves from being nudged out the picture. Diving can actually hold something of an edifying sway on football. Without it, skilful play and joyful invention would likely suffer. Without it, the players we all watch the sport for – the ones who make us spill hot Bovril over our laps – would die out, or certainly struggle.

Plus, is there really much difference between fooling an opponent with a feign or a glance in the opposite direction and deceiving a referee with a well-crafted dive? There is an art – even if it's not particularly virtuous – to the perfect deception.

In fact, the primary stigma around diving is not a question of sporting integrity, but of masculinity. How often have you heard some pigheaded supporter – usually nursing a pint of bitter, propped up by the bar behind him – use some sort of derogative female term to shame a diver? By going down under little physical contact, players' manliness comes into question (because of course, that's of utmost concern). Gary Lineker once suggested that divers should be shown 'pink cards,' although he stopped short of claiming they should be dressed in a pretty pink tutu and made to wear lipstick.

Then there's the nationalist strand to the way divers are shamed. In essence, there is a notion that only foreigners dive, and that those natives who do dive have been corrupted by foreigners and their foreign ways. "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."

Stubbs had obviously never head of Francis Lee, the English-born Manchester City striker from England who become notorious as one of the first divers of the television generation. Or John MacDonald, the Scottish-born Rangers player from Scotland who was nicknamed after the submarine Polaris due to his tendency to go down. Or Michael Owen – also from England, just for the record – who would mask his dives by having an innocent, fresh face and a sensible haircut. But make no mistake, he was a diver just like all those pesky foreigners.

Michael Owen takes a well-timed tumble against Fulham | Photo: PA Images

Even in the modern age, the idea that diving is nothing more than an imported, toxic influence is commonly aired. Take St. Johnstone defender Brad McKay, who this season was contacted by the Scottish FA for branding Hearts' Spanish striker Juanma Delgado a "typical foreigner" for going down easily in a match between the two teams. It's not just those of another era who believe in such xenophobia either: McKay is 22, illustrating how such orientation has become a harmful, and certainly unfair, transcendental cliche.

That's not to say that different cultures perceive diving in different ways, though. In the United States 'flopping', as it's called there, is viewed with the same scorn as it is in the United Kingdom. After all, the country's primary sporting interest, the NFL, has only just learned to treat concussion with compassion and medical expertise (it turns out a ruffle of the hair and a sniff of the salts isn't enough to reverse potential brain damage). Their rejection of diving is rooted, just like it is in the UK, in the belief that men playing sport should act like men.

"There are some players who act as if they've lost a limb when they get grazed by an opponent," wrote one American journalist after a match involving Arjen Robben at last summer's World Cup. "Others spend so much time writhing on the ground it looks as though their jerseys are on fire," complained another. "It's unbecoming and has to stop."

Yet in Brazil – homeland of football's most artful and sharp-witted – diving is seen as an act of rebellion. In fact, the fooling of authoritative figures (of which diving counts) is even considered heroic within some circles, an attitude that is partly attributable to the number of native ancestors who have been subjugated by a ruthlessly capitalist society over several generations.

It illustrates just how many factors must be taken into account when attempting to understand what makes a football player dive. Even from a purely sporting perspective, there are nuances to consider.

For many, morality is of primary concern. But is it fair to blame a player for diving when so often an advantage can be found by doing so? The penalty box is refereed differently to elsewhere on the pitch, so surely it's only natural that players would tailor their conduct accordingly? Who really expects players to stop themselves from biting the carrot that dangles so alluringly in front of their nose?

Of course, the easiest way to eradicate diving from the game would be to simply install video technology and video replays for every contentious decision made by the officials. But football without diving might not be as utopian as so many envisage. In fact, it might be the very thing sustaining the best bits of the game.

@grahamruthven