Soccer takes a dive


The Globe has a big feature today on A3 on the supposed “science” of the soccer dive, including an interview with some psychologist who has published a piece on diving in the excellently-named Journal of Nonverbal behavior. But honestly, it doesn’t a scientist to spot a dive, and I remain completely flummoxed as to why referees are duped so frequently.

I explained it all ages ago:

When a normal human is tripped or stumbles, the automatic reaction is to thrust out a leg in the direction of the stumble, plant the foot, and allow the leg to absorb the force of the tilt and retain the body in an upright bipedal position. It’s a skill virtually every human learns by the age of four, and any professional athlete has mastered it. You simply cannot make it to the dinner table — let alone as a pro — without being able to stand up.

Countering the “staying upright” instinct is hard, and soccer players have to practice  to make themselves fall down. My friend JP, with whom I played four years of varsity soccer at McGill, had mastered it. The trick, as he showed me, was to train yourself to let your legs go limp as soon as you are tackled. It’s similar to the idea of letting your body go limp when you are about to crash your car.

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Soccer takes a dive

  1. A soccer dive really sounds like the false indignation and outrage on display by politicians of all stripes. Lack of common sense and basic honesty are in short supply everywhere, whether you're trying to kick a ball away from someone or throw it in someone else's court.

  2. A snippet from the best analysis on soccer dives I've read to date:

    This incident — of a type which is commonplace — is not easily accommodated by the Mailesque urge to rigidly delineate morality (all the better to condemn you with…). If a player is fouled, but not in such a way that makes it blindingly obvious, can a player exaggerate the contact in order precisely to blind the ref with its obviousness? Some would say that two wrongs don't make a right. But one wrong doesn't make a right, either. If the application of justice is as inefficient as it evidently is, can a player not nudge justice in the right direction? But then, how can we trust the player to decide whether a challenge made on him is legal or not? And if the challengee can do this, can the challenger not claim it to be fine for him to, say, slyly pull an opponent's jersey next time around? And if he can do that, well…


  3. The best way to tell if someone is injured or not is if they are rolling around the pitch. Players with real injuries stay absolutely still while the guys with minor knocks looking to exaggerate contact roll around the field like they have been shot.

  4. Andrew,

    What you write is true, but as you must know from your playing days this is not the only type of dive; there are degrees of diving. Some, of they type you describe, are generally a deliberate attempt to deceive the referee to gain possession or even a PK. But many dives, as Run of Play suggests above, are taken to varying degrees in order to signal to the referee that a foul has been committed.

    Soccer is such a difficult sport to officiate (and I say this as a mid-level OSRA ref of many years, as well as a competitive player), because there is no clear delineation, in most cases, of what constitutes a foul. The Laws of the Game are full of the phrase "in the opinion of the referee." Further, most officiating decisions in soccer are made on the basis of whether or not the offending team has gained an advantage from the offense – if no advantage is gained there is a strong pressure on the referee not to stop the play. All of these factors create the conditions in which in order for a foul to be called a player needs to fall down, or at least trip-up. It is not good for the game, but it will take a massive modification to the culture of officiating and playing to bring about some change.

    • "because there is no clear delineation, in most cases, of what constitutes a foul."

      I also think ref discretion has a lot to do with all the play-acting we get now. Players seem to think ref has not seen contact and need to help him make the 'correct' decision.

  5. This is also not always true.

    A tough knock right on the bone – such as the shin – often induces frantic movement, rather than prone motionless. Consider most people's reaction to painfully stubbing their toe at home – clutching it and jumping around. Some knocks in soccer are more painful versions of this and similar type of things.

    I would agree however, that the cases I describe are rarely serious injuries. A seriously injured player generally will not be rolling around on the pitch.

  6. I would argue there are 2 basic reasons the referees "allow" diving to continue. One, it is generally easier – or less risky – for referees to blow the play down when there is some doubt in there mind.

    Two, referees exist in the same culture that does not view diving as ungentlemanly or pathetic. The North American sporting culture is very different from many others – we think these guys are pussies. Many other cultures think they are "winners".

    Case in point on the cultural argument is the recent un-suspension of Eduardo. If FIFA or UEFA wanted to eliminate diving (like they sometimes say they do to appease guys like us), all they would have to do is what they almost did to Eduardo. Use video replay and suspend a guy for a while and then just keep doing it for a year or two and, eventually, the players will figure it out. That has been the solution for 25 years. That they haven't pursued it with even a remote amount of vigour tells you all you need to know about the sporting culture of most of Europe and South/Central America.

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