It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from the real Rules Guru, Adrian the Canadian. He has a good excuse – he’s been busy studying rules that actually matter to prepare for Ontario’s bar exam. However, my recent post addressing two soccer articles by my brother Conor lulled him out of hiding. Conor’s spot-on tribute to the toughness of Carles Puyol set me off on a tangent about soccer’s worst trait: diving. In Part 1 of his return, Adrian tells FIFA how to clean up this eyesore:
I’ve been watching a lot of Euro 2012 recently. The standard of play has been high. Games have featured ample scoring, good defense, and the top teams have made it through, leaving us with two potentially excellent semi-finals and the prospect of an even better final. And yet I’m still deeply troubled by the amount of diving in the game. Every half features at least one or two incidences of notorious play acting as players, in an attempt to draw a foul, contort and moan on the grass. It’s not just inelegant, it slows down the game and interrupts potentially excellent passages of play. Worst of all, I think the problem is a tractable one, just one that football authorities have been reluctant to combat.
The biggest problem with eliminating diving is that there will always be a tremendous incentive for players to dive. As we all know, it’s very difficult to score in soccer. Having a stern penalty for fouls in the penalty area – a penalty shot and near sure goal (unless you’re England) – opens up play and increases scoring. The issue is compounded by the fact that soccer is a fast game. It’s very difficult for officials to determine whether a challenge was legitimate or not or whether a player is diving or was actually hurt by a tackle. Thus, we should avoid a rule that makes scoring more difficult or a rule that puts a greater onus on the referees – they’re in a difficult enough situation as it is.
The most intuitive solution is what the MLS does (and what the NBA is threatening to do) – it decreases the incentive to dive by reviewing questionable falls after the game. While the punishment for diving in a game remains low, currently a yellow card (weighed against a set piece in your favor if you’re not caught), if FIFA or UEFA suspended players who were found to be diving on a post-game video review, the motivation to dive would be severely decreased. Now, this does create a significant last period problem — this wouldn’t have stopped Rudi Voller’s famous dive — but it will go a long way. I’ll deal with the last period problem further down in a more controversial proposal.
But before getting to that, another easy rule tweak would be to force players that require medical staff to come onto the field to sit off for a defined period of time, say five minutes or so, or to be subbed immediately. The reasoning for this is intuitive. Players roll on the pitch to convince officials that a dive was a real injury. If the player is really injured, some brief recovery period should be necessary and, if the player is not, there’s no need for medical staff to come on. Forcing teams to break the run of play for a phony injury from a silly dive is the definition of unsportsmanlike behavior and it should, for at least a brief period, put a team at a disadvantage. Similarly, this helps to mitigate the Boy Who Cried Wolf problem where real injuries are often disregarded as fakes by even pitch-side medical professionals (as the unfortunate death of Piermario Morosini of cardiac arrest during a game may help show).
Now, pretending that we could get FIFA to institute replay review (which they won’t even do for goals right now!), here’s a more controversial proposal to solve the last period problem and, potentially, to open up play in the box: replay challenges. Each team should have one, or two, replay challenges that they can use to give the referees an opportunity to review critical tackles. This would have two benefits. First, the punishment for diving would be increased and, second, the incentive for players to play through would be increased.
Let’s look at the famous Rudi Voller dive from the 1990 World Cup (start the video at 5:00 for some ridiculousness from new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann followed by Voller’s dive; the British commentary sounds awfully familiar). In that case, Argentina could have challenged the dive and, instead of a penalty shot, a yellow card would have been the likely result. Knowing that, there’s a good chance Rudi wouldn’t have dove but would have kept charging toward the net. Now, what if Rudi had actually been fouled? Under this system, there would have been an incentive for him to maintain his feet. He could have finished the play, had a shot, and then Germany could have used its one challenge to attempt to earn the penalty shot for the foul. Thus, a challenge system would create an incentive for players to keep their feet even when fouled.
Rule changes are needed to get diving out of soccer. While I don’t think that FIFA will be beating down my door to get me to advise them on a challenge system, post-game reviews of dives would go a long way to eliminating the problem. It’s an elegant, intuitive solution that would help the growth of the game around the world. It’s likely not going to happen though, because we’re dealing with FIFA here.