How to solve the problem of diving in soccer

Another World Cup, another wave of concerns about the plague of diving (or “simulation”) that afflicts the beautiful game. Every four years the most casual and ignorant of soccer fans become obsessives, and suddenly everyone notices that some of the best soccer players in the world are… a bunch of fakers.

This World Cup actually started out ok, but a week into it and it is business as usual, with the flow of the game regularly interrupted by a charade of flopping, writhing, grimacing, rolling, twisting, grabbing. So once again we are led to ask: What, if anything, can be done about it?

First, diving is nothing new, it’s been a part of the game for a very long time. There’s even a Wikipedia entry about it for heaven’s sake.

But second, not everyone thinks diving is bad. The Globe and Mail’s television writer, John Doyle, wrote a piece two World Cups ago asserting that not only is diving perfectly respectable, but that complaining about it is nothing more than North American parochialism, a sign of our “smug, small-minded notion of fairness, sportsmanship and manliness.”

Unfortunately, many players agree. Some of the world’s best players are notorious and unapologetic divers, and the list of ace plongeurs past and present includes Arjen Robben, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Jurgen Klinsmann.  Nevertheless, pace John Doyle, both FIFA and Uefa insist on treating diving as a form of cheating, and since 1999 both bodies have been on anti-diving missions, though with little success.

The problem, as a recent Vox article about new research into diving shows, is that it doesn’t happen at random. Instead, the researchers found that it is a highly rational behaviour: diving is a tactic, aimed at the referee, used to obtain maximal advantage in a low-scoring sport where over a quarter of all goals are off of set-plays (in this World Cup so far, over half of all goals are set-pieces.)

So assuming this is a problem we want to solve, what can be done? Put differently, how can we change the current incentive structure that makes diving a rational tactic?

The two standard solutions on offer are to make it harder to score off set plays (especially penalty kicks), or to punish players for faking it with yellow cards or outright ejections. The first would mean changing the basic geometry of the game, and is resisted for the same reason people resist changing the size of nets in hockey or the height of the net in basketball.

When it comes to the second option, as the Vox piece notes, calling out faking puts a lot of pressure on referees, and “no one wants to be the referee who ignored a real injury or let an egregious slide tackle go unpunished.”

I’m personally in favour of ejecting players who hit the dirt untouched, and I’m a bit surprised at the widely-held notion that it’s hard to tell when players are faking. It’s actually not hard at all. A 2009 study found four indicators of simulation, including “lack of ballistic continuity” (the direction and magnitude of the dive is not consistent with the nature of the contact) and “lack of contact consistency” (the player grabs their head when they’ve been kicked in the shin, for example). These are both pretty easy to detect, even at the high speeds of professional soccer.

But the most frequent, and obvious, indicator is when the player adopts the “archer’s bow pose” with the head tilted back, chest thrust forward, arms raised and both legs bent at the knee to lift both feet off the ground. This is such an unnatural response to being tripped that any player who adopts it is obviously faking it. There is just no way anyone who has been genuinely knocked off balance is going to react this way — your body won’t let you.  And yet referees fall for it time and again.  Maybe they just don’t want to be the ones to accuse famous millionaire athletes of being cheats.  

It is possible that the use of video replay could help here — Brazil’s current star, Neymar, managed to draw a penalty shot against Costa Rica with this little acting job, only to have it revoked upon video review. But video review of fouls, especially slow-motion review, is a highly problematic device in its own right (about which more in a separate blog post).

So what to do?

There is one solution that hasn’t been tried yet, and it doesn’t require changing the geometry of the game. Even better, it doesn’t involve accusing anyone of being a liar and a cheat. Just the opposite — it involves treating the allegedly fouled player’s behaviour with the utmost seriousness.

The solution is this: If a player acts as if they have been grievously wounded, then treat them as if they have been grievously wounded and give them an automatic “injury time out.” If you are elbowed or kicked or tripped so hard that you are literally rolling around in agony, then there is no question that for your own safety you need to take time off to make sure you are ok. So your team might get a free kick, but at the cost of the fouled player spending the next, say, five minutes on the sideline.

For a second such event, the player should expect to have to spend ten minutes on the sideline recuperating from yet another devastating blow. You could allow the player to be replaced by a substitute of course, but that would mean their team loses their services for the remainder of the game. But again, you’re not accusing them of faking it — you are taking their demonstrations of injury at face value.

You might object that this risks punishing players who are genuinely hurt. It doesn’t, for a simple reason: Extremely fit athletes in a highly competitive situation quite literally don’t feel pain. Anyone who has ever played a competitive sport or engaged in a highly adrenalized activity (white water canoeing, skydiving, military combat) knows this. People in such situations tear muscles, destroy ligaments, break limbs, suffer deep cuts, suffer bullet wounds  — and don’t even notice it.

And so it follows that if an athlete, especially one playing in the crazed atmosphere of the World Cup, comes out of a bit of contact with an opponent literally writhing on the ground in agony, there are only two possibilities: one is that they are actually very seriously injured, and ought to be looked after by a doctor. The second is that they are faking it. In either case, five minutes on the sidelines would settle the question one way or another.

Such a regime, once implemented, would put an almost immediate end to diving in soccer.



How to solve the problem of diving in soccer — 2 Comments

  1. Wouldn’t an easier change to the rules be to make it much harder to win a penalty? The problem with the penalty is that it’s so overpowered that it totally distorts play in the box. A penalty is worth something like 75% of a goal, but hardly any of the plays which the foul interrupts are worth as much. I’d be inclined to give indirect free kicks in the box for normal fouls, and only award penalties for cardable offenses inside the penalty box, fouls in the six yard box or when the player is one on one. You could even maybe make the penalty box smaller without hurting the game too much.

    I like the thinking behind your idea, but all it would do is curb the worst excesses of the play acting. Diving itself would still continue, but it’d perhaps be more dignified because the diver would pick themselves up afterwards. Where it would come in handy would be towards the end of games where a team is defending a single goal lead, and players on the defending team spend the last ten minutes of the game rolling around in mock agony to try to run down the clock.

  2. I love the idea of punishing someone by taking their “claim” at face value. I’ve long thought my department should have a policy of mailing a completely sincere condolence card to the parents any time a student misses an exam claiming to have lost a grandparent.