So the World Cup is going on now. The Big Names of Football (aka Brazil, Argentina, England and France. Nobody else. read on and you’ll understand why) have made waves for either flattering to deceive or deceiving to flatter. So of course, a significant proportion of water-cooler-conversation involves the WC. (pun intended, very much).
As always, with the World Cup, especially one as-per-popular-expectations as this one, the world is inundated by “ardent football fans” who will vanish back into the woodwork for another 4 years come the 11th of July. Fans who invariably support the Big Names of Football, i.e. – Brazil, Argentina, England or France (and Spain in recent times) and sometimes all of them, mark footballing history in terms of BB and AB (Before Beckham and After Beckham), remember Zidane as “The Headbutt Guy” and think Ronaldo is the name of a certain petulant Portuguese. While certainly adding vast amounts of color, drama and fun to the experience that is The World Cup on ESPN, for someone who qualifies as a certifiable-crazy-insomniac-football-fan for a decade+ and once played seriously for several years, the ideas, perspectives, biases and ignorances of the casual fan can be at once horrifying and evoke the most potent nostalgia. (For as much as we ‘experts’ would like to deny it, there was a time when we too were no different).
But this post is not about fair-weather-fans. This post is about one the most popular “put-downs” of football, co-incidentally most heavily propagated by the casual watcher of the game on the tele. I speak not of the “its boring and nothing ever happens” sentiment (at which I tend to snort. loudly.); but at the “Footballers keep falling down and rolling in theatrics at the slightest contact. What wimpy drama queens”. As someone who’s been clattered into many a time, this is a statement that tends to get my goat, make me act the goat, and even quote Goethe (not really).
The argument usually goes like this: Football is great and all, and it’s true that its the most dynamic, non-stop-action game around, especially compared to the Hungry-Hungry-Hippo-esque nature of similarly-named cousin (distant) across the Atlantic. But the rolling around and clutching at limbs at minor contact is off-putting and frankly, not very manly. Especially compared to ‘tough guys’ of American Football.
First Point. Minor Contact. Lets set the record straight. It is not minor contact. Contact invariably happens when one footballer moving at terminal velocity is either kicked in the shins, thigh, groin or chin by another footballer, also moving at terminal velocity. It HURTS. A lot. Very often what looks on TV like minor contact (by the amount of apparent force) is actually pretty massive once you factor in relative velocities.
Another point is that barring the shins, footballers have no padding / protection. When 2 footballers collide, its invariably full-on bone-on-bone elbow in the ribs contact. To contrast 2 other high-contact sports: American Football and Rugby. While it’s true that the padding of American Football does more to increase the mass and kinetic energy of a player than pure protection, there’s no denying the fact that it does provide a good measure of protection. Secondly, american football contact is vastly different from that of Football. A solid American Football tackle is designed to take you down, and there’s no imperative or scope to stay on your feet, so the idea of going to ground easily isn’t a question. Regular football tackles (normally) do not target the player itself, the body contact is ‘incidental’ to going for the ball. While Rugby is even more brutal in lack of protection than football, terminal-velocity collisions, shoulder-barges and sliding feet-first tackles aren’t as common as in Football. With all due respect to all 3 sports, the circumstances, intent and protective environment are too different to warrant casual comparison.
Second point. Incentive. While it may look to the casual watcher that footballers drop for anything and everything, that’s generally not the case. There are very clear rules with respect to tackling and what is and is not allowed. Example – 1 footed sliding tackle is allowed. A two-footed tackled is not. Neither is any tackle from behind. Under ANY circumstances. Any tackle that makes contact with the opposition player either before the ball or misses the ball entirely is a foul. Shirt-pulling is a foul. Jostling shoulder-to-shoulder for position (a ‘shoulder-barge’) is fine. Ramming your shoulder with intent to knock over the other is not. I am paraphrasing, but broadly speaking, these are the rules of the game. If I have the ball, a defender runs up and kicks me in the shins missing the ball, it is an illegal move. I have the right to draw attention to the illegal move and claim the advantage. Especially since it hurts like a b****. (Actually, a kick on the patella will leave you rolling on the ground, intentions be damned.). My point is here is there is a clear incentive for both a) staying on my feet post-contact and b) going to ground. Often the latter is tactically the smarter thing to do.
Third point. Philosophy and culture. Very often these claims of diving happen when teams from 1 of the 2 broad philosophical cants meet. With obvious bias, I shall name these 2 philosophies The Aesthetic and The Intense.
The Aesthetic – Adherents include the Iberian peninsula, Italy (in a way) and Latin and South American nations. Offensive philosophy is shaped around skill (dribbling for Iberia, passing for Italy, both for South Americans). An inherent aspect of this ‘beating’ the defender either a) leaving him for dead (highest form of Aesthetic) or b) drawing illegal contact (defender swings for the ball, misses and kicks a shin instead) and gaining the foul.
Defensive philosophy is based around ‘stealing’ the ball with little to no contact with the opposing player.
As can be seen, contact is heavily penalized under this philosophy.
The Intense – England, Australia, Germany(somewhat), USA and in a sense, African nations.
Offensive philosophy is shaped around a high-tempo physically-dominant play with the emphasis on ‘getting past’ the defender, either pushing, shoving, dribbling, dodging, outrunning, or how have you.
Defensive philosophy is similarly intense, and involves ‘stopping’ the player as much as the ball, with hard crunching tackles a perfectly valid form of defense.
This philosophy has a higher proportion of aerial play, less controlled possession and more mutually ‘challenging’ for the ball.
Hence, when 2 teams from different philosophies meet, there will be fireworks. When an english defender slides in with a crunching tackle, he is a)using a perfectly valid tool and b)expects the opposition to ‘ride the challenge’ and ‘get past’ the defender. However, the opposition player, a diminutive Portuguese feels that the defender has a)blasphemed with such crude physical play and b) he himself has reached his objective of drawing illegal (in his head) contact and goes down.
Bottom line. It’s not that simple as “footballers are theatrical”. Yes, there is diving. I hate it. Its slimy and demeaning. There are theatrics. and there’s Football. It’s all part of the game.