Anyone watching El Classico last weekend will have been completely consumed by it. The one-touch passing, brilliant vision and use of space, the way Di Maria tormented Dani Alves for an hour and the brilliant finishing of Benzema and of course Messi. It will have left many with the lingering feeling that they had just watched something special. They had. It means the La Liga title race is still wide open with, incredibly, the two ‘major’ teams in the league stuck behind Athletico Madrid with Simeone at the helm. Despite the brilliance of the game and the importance of it, the game was somewhat overshadowed, as it often is, by foul play and amateur dramatics.
Diving is always at the forefront of Spain’s showcase footballing event. It looked like Neymar was fouled for the award of the first penalty. Sergio Ramos, deliberately or not, clipped his heels and inhibited his path towards goal and a one-on-one situation with Diego Lopez the Madrid goalkeeper. If Neymar had stayed on his feet having been clipped, which he could have done, he would have had the chance to score. This is where my issue with diving starts. Neymar, like almost all footballers, goes down when he feels contact. He has been coached to ‘dive’ in the box. Why? because if you do not go down, you do not get a penalty. Plus, in a one-on-one situation what would you rather? The chance to score a penalty and to play against 10 men? OR the chance to score a goal? Surely the former.
If Neymar had stayed on his feet following the contact from Ramos, shot and missed, there would have been no goal and no red card for Ramos. So why would Neymar not go down? If we want to stop diving, we need to change the interpretation of the advantage law, following a foul. At the moment a penalty is rarely given unless a player goes to ground. If a player stays on his feet following a foul, that player should be rewarded not punished. Why is it that the advantage rule doesn’t seem to apply in the penalty area after the player has had a shot? The advantage rules states that the referee should:
Allow play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalise the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at the time
Is the shot following a foul in the penalty area enough of a benefit from an advantage? Surely the foul has affected the position from which the shot has been taken, or the body position of the player striking the ball. If Neymar had stayed on his feet, shot and missed, why not give a penalty? This would mean Neymar, or Barcelona would have had two chances to score, from the original shot or from the penalty, thus rewarding the players for staying on their feet. This does obviously favour the attacking team, giving them two fantastic chances to score. But it could also avoid the issue of ‘double punishment’ for the defensive side if Neymar had stayed on his feet.
Before this pivotal moment in the game, Madrid were winning 3-2 and looking by far the better side. One slight touch by Ramos on Neymar resulted in a penalty AND a red card for Ramos (a ‘double punishment’), completely changing, and arguably ruining the game. If Neymar had stayed on his feet and scored, the game would be tied at 3-3 and Ramos would have got a yellow (possibly), as he did not stop an ‘obvious goal-scoring opportunity’. Real Madrid would have been in a much better position with 11 men on the field and you would think that Barcelona would be satisfied with the certainty of the goal they had scored, rather than the 70% chance of scoring from a penalty (which admittedly is more of a chance with Messi taking it). If however, Neymar shot and missed having stayed on his feet, then the referee should be allowed to bring play back and give the penalty, as well as the red card. It could be said that the red card should not be given as the contact from Ramos did not inhibit Neymar enough to prevent a shot. The current rule states that:
A red card should be issued if a foul denies a clear goal scoring opportunity.
This already causes great trouble for the referee as it is completely subjective as to what a ‘clear goal scoring opportunity’ is. So why not, in the instance of someone remaining on their feet following a foul, change the rule to state that a red card should be given if a foul denies a goal.
Even with this change to the interpretation of the advantage law, the attacking player may still think it better to go down and take the chance of a missed penalty with the knowledge that the red card would be shown. However, this could also lead to a change in what the referee deems ‘enough’ contact to go down. At the moment, pretty much any contact in the penalty area, excluding the wrestling that goes on before and during set pieces, results in a penalty kick. If it is recognised that a free shot on goal is an option, owing to the certainty of a penalty kick being awarded should the chance not be converted, the degree of contact necessary to cause a player to fall to the ground should be greater. If the player goes down too easily, even if there was contact, he should be punished through the lack of a penalty award. I understand this makes the referee’s job in this situation somewhat more difficult.
Diving is a problem across all of football and is somewhat creeping in to other sports. Even in rugby, a sport renowned for its sportmanship and integrity, players fall to the ground theatrically following obstructions to gain the attention of the referee. A footballer will be hounded by his manager for not going to ground in the penalty area. You hear commentators, analysts and fans saying things like “He should have gone down there”. People cannot make such statements and then spend the hours they do complaining about diving. Obviously a dive when there is no contact is rightly greeted with a yellow card. The real issue is the decision to dive when it is possible not to.
Diving will be part of the game whilst the benefits of doing so outweigh the benefits of staying on your feet.