For those who believe soccer is more about acting than athleticism, few moments rival the “confrontation” (if you can call it that) between Brazilian star Rivaldo and Turkey’s Hakan Unsal during a World Cup match in 2002. With his team leading 2-1, Rivaldo appeared to be taking his time for a corner kick—all the better to eat time off the clock. Unsal thought so, anyway, and lightly kicked the ball at Rivaldo in protest. The ball bounced off of the Brazilian’s right thigh.
Rivaldo buckled at the knees, fell to the ground and covered his face in agony, as though a sniper had shot him between the eyes. As a result, the referee issued a red card and Unsal was sent off, stymieing Turkey’s comeback effort. Rivaldo was as indifferent to the incident as he was about the ensuing fine—which amounted to less than half a day’s pay for the Brazilian. “[Soccer] is a game and people have to be cunning,” he shrugged.
Like many sports, soccer requires a high level of endurance, dexterity and reflexes. Yet playing smart often means inventing or embellishing one’s injuries to one’s advantage. It certainly worked for Rivaldo: Brazil beat Turkey and would later claim the World Cup. Even diehard fans agree: diving has become an intrinsic part of the game, from the World Cup to amateur pitches. “It’s become an epidemic,” says Bob Rumscheidt, who has coached amateur soccer for 20 years and worked at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and at the recent 2007 Under 20 World Cup. “It’s hard to single out one country because everybody does it, even my beloved Germany.”
Diving is illegal, technically speaking. According to a FIFA rule instituted in 2006, “attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled” is a cardable offence. Trouble is, it’s near impossible to catch. With the help of two linesmen, the referee must oversee 22 players over a 105- by 68-m field. “The referee has so much ground to cover, and players know that. They know what the ref’s not going to see,” says Rumscheidt. FIFA has so far resisted calls to institute instant replay, as has been used in Canadian football since 2006. Guilty players are almost always found out well after the fact, and are subject only to fines. Matches are never annulled or replayed.
And let’s face it: as a semi-contact sport, soccer can be nebulous when it comes to what’s allowed. A wholly legal tackle may look less so if the player being robbed happens to tumble writhing in pain, real or otherwise. “Diving to win a penalty is an advantage to your team,” admits Ged Cleaver, who runs the Montreal Adult Soccer School. “It’s becoming a skill. It’s almost like the game was designed for it.” Cleaver, who also teaches junior soccer, has seen the fallout. “The kids I coach are play-acting. They pick it up from their heroes.”
Diving will likely be all the more prevalent during the 2010 World Cup. FIFA has launched a high-profile campaign against what it deems “dangerous tackles,” meaning referees may pull the red card in the event of a collision. Sharpen your acting skills, boys. There’s a World Cup to be won.