Thursday, 26 March 2015

Rational Ref: In search of the 'spirit' of the game of soccer

In search of the 'spirit' of the game of soccer

Authorities often talk of the 'spirit' soccer should be played in, but refuse to define it, leaving the game vulnerable to cheats


Exactly what is the "spirit" that is expected of players and coaches in the beautiful game? How do players and coaches understand and apply the "spirit of the game"? And, more importantly, how should referees interpret this?

These are important questions for Hong Kong because for the coming soccer season and beyond, the Hong Kong Football Association has asked players, team officials and match officials to sign a "rules of conduct" document, which previously was available only in Chinese.

According to HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe, the document has been translated for the first time into English as part of the association's commitment to become more bilingual. The document is important and will further develop into one based on Fifa's "code of conduct" to help fight match manipulation. Any player, coach or referee who refuses to sign the document will be barred from HKFA activities.

The first sentence of the English version states: "Players and team/match officials shall at all time [sic] play football in the spirit of the game."

Strangely, there is no official definition of "spirit of the game" available from Fifa or other bodies. It is simply assumed that soccer lovers intrinsically know what this spirit is. Therefore, the statement could mean all manner of things to all manner of people in all manner of situations.

The humour website Urban Dictionary states: "The spirit of the game is defined by the intended rules as perceived in reflection to the other rules. This most comes into [play] when the action in question is not governed by a set rule. In this case, you are bound to play by the spirit of the game."

It uses the board game Monopoly as an example.
"If after a considerable number of turns have been taken by each player, and one player gets into trouble and debt, instead of losing and congratulating the winner, he proposes to 'join forces' with another player - sharing money, property, and victory. Though this joining has no rules set against it, this is against the spirit of the game, though not implicitly stated. To join forces to tip the game in your favour is against the spirit of the game."

In this sense, the idea of not being able to accept defeat graciously, and instead attempting to manipulate the game in one's favour, is considered to be against the spirit of the game. This sounds very much like being a bad loser and trying to win at all costs.

How often do we see players, coaches and supporters behave like this? And how frequently do we see teams attempt to manipulate the game in their favour or to blame match officials for the result?

One example where an action is not governed by a set rule, but is bound by the spirit of the game, is when players deliberately stop the game so an injured player may receive treatment. When play resumes, players and supporters clap in appreciation of this gesture. From Rational Ref's perspective, the clapping is usually insincere, mechanical and superficial.

Consider further when a goalkeeper has the ball in his hands and an opposition player is down injured. The goalkeeper will throw the ball out so the injured player can receive treatment. Usually, the player is not seriously injured, probably the reason the referee did not stop the game in the first place.

Players who put the ball out of play take the risk of being duped. Nevertheless, after the injured player has been dealt with, his teammates will usually return the ball. Now depending on different people's interpretation of "spirit of the game", the way the ball is returned can take on different forms. Since the goalkeeper previously had the ball in his hands, it would be fair to return the ball directly to him; but this rarely happens. It is more common for the team to put the ball out over the goal line to force a goal kick.

Do players perceive a goal kick, rather than the goalkeeper kicking the ball out from his hands, to be more or less favourable? Occasionally, a team will return the ball over the touch-line and close to the corner flag for a throw-in. Are these actions - which are clearly not reciprocal - in keeping with the spirit of the game?

Moreover, is the fact that a player who pretends to be injured and therefore dupes his opponents into wasting time considered to be acting against the spirit of the game? Or is it in keeping with the spirit because it is better to be safe than sorry after receiving a knock? Without a proper definition from the authorities, these situations are both justified and vilified.

During tough competitive matches we rarely see the spirit of the game because teams go out to win, and not to make friends. Even the handful of pre-season matches being played this week in Hong Kong by the four visiting English Premier League teams (Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and Manchester United) and HKFA Division One teams (South China and Kitchee) will be far from "friendly".

Considering there is no official definition of the spirit of the game, it is extraordinary how match officials throughout the decades have done their level best to ensure that matches are played fairly, safely and in an enjoyable manner that is in keeping with the "spirit of the game" … whatever that is supposed to be.

It is simply a fuzzy, hazy and unclear concept that is used to instil a sense of sporting behaviour and respect in the game.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013

Monday, 9 March 2015

Rational Ref: Where do we draw the line on persistent fouling?

Where do we draw the line on persistent fouling?

Talented players will always be a target for 'special' treatment, but when must it be stopped?

What's the best way to stop Eden from passing you by? Hazard a guess? Several kicks ought to do it.

Eden Hazard is the most fouled player in the English Premier League this season. The Chelsea star was on the receiving end of some "special" treatment in last week's Champions League encounter with Paris Saint-Germain, when he was fouled nine times in a match where the referee issued only two cautions.

Everyone knows a team's best attacking player is both a godsend and a liability. Such a player can turn a match in a heartbeat, but if he is repeatedly targeted and injured, the team will struggle with other options.

Specifically targeting an opponent is all part of the game and the rules are there to help referees discipline offending players for persistent fouls. Persistent infringements are repeated offences by one player on several others and also by several players on one opponent. Since there is no defined frequency on what is persistent, it depends on the referee's judgment to determine when enough is enough.

Is nine times enough, or five or two? Every player and coach has their own opinion. For instance, when a substitute enters the pitch, immediately fouls an opponent with a careless trip and gets cautioned, the referee is criticised for giving a card for the player's "first foul".
Eden Hazard has come in for some rough treatment this season. Photo: AFP
Others may also be puzzled by the yellow card for an innocuous foul.

However, what players, coaches and spectators often fail to realise is the referee has recognised that the team as a whole has repeatedly fouled an opponent and has therefore correctly penalised one player as a warning to his teammates.

Experienced referees are alert to the time-old tactic that players like Hazard — who Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has compared favourably to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — will always receive more than their fair share of special attention from the opposing team.

Even Mourinho has admitted he instructs his players to target talented opponents.
 
It's how players react to being targeted that reveals their true mettle. Players who lose their heads fail spectacularly because they believe the game revolves around them when in fact it is a team game. Mourinho said: "[Hazard] is pure. Today [in the Champions League] there were nine fouls. In the Premier League, it's no different. If he's another player he dives, stays on the floor, rolls in the grass, screams. He's asking for cards and cards and cards."

Messi is also pure, preferring to ride through challenges and letting the referee or competition organiser deal with errant players.

In contrast, Ronaldo has a quick temper and when challenged will prefer to go down easily. Earlier this year the Real Madrid star kicked out and slapped Cordoba's Edimar Fraga after enduring some special attention in a La Liga match. He was sent off and banned for two matches.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (left) hit out at Cordoba's Edimar Fraga after some rough treatment during their La Liga match in January and received a two-match ban. Photo: Reuters

Chelsea's Nemanja Matic has a similar temperament. Last weekend against Burnley he was on the receiving end of a horrendous tackle by Ashley Barnes. Referee Martin Atkinson did not have the best angle to see the incident and did not whistle for a foul.

But Matic reacted angrily by violently pushing Barnes to the ground, leaving Atkinson with no choice but to show him a red card.

Mourinho, forgetting that the foundation of his managerial career is based on using loyal but limited players in similar hard-grafting roles, blasted Barnes saying: "The player, if I can call him a player, should have been in the shower in minute 31."

In these modern times, even if the referee does not see a sending-off incident, the FA supposedly has a process to be able to take retrospective action. It depends on whether the FA has the will and wherewithal to help protect the safety of players and referees alike, as well as to uphold the image of the game.

Ashley Barnes' horror challenge, and Nemanja Matic was red-carded for his retaliation during Chelsea's draw with Burnley last weekend. Photo: Reuters

This also does not excuse Matic and Mourinho for their reactions. Players taking the law into their own hands and managers, who have the benefit of video replays criticising referees for making honest mistakes, are revealing the egotistical nature of the individuals involved.

If only there could be a way to stop, or at least minimise, this obstinate behaviour. On the pitch, referees have rules to help tackle persistent infringements. Off the pitch, competition organisers should similarly apply the rules and discipline all persistent offenders, thus allowing everyone to focus on playing ball without the media circus.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 February 2015


UPDATE
The statistics show Eden Hazard "wins" a yellow card for every 11 fouls against him, compared with Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez "winning" a card for every 6 fouls (see Why Eden Hazard Really Does Need More Protection From Referees).

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Rational Ref: Offside rules amended to keep everyone onside

Fifa revisits offside rules

Fifa's re-definition of key terminology should allow match officials to make clearer decisions


The much-quoted saying "If he's not interfering with play, what's he doing on the pitch?" is usually incorrectly attributed to former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly instead of Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson.

Although decades old, it refers to the essence of the offside law, which is to penalise a player for being in an offside position when he is involved in active play.

The problem is the exact definition of being "involved in active play". This has generated much derision, denunciation and debate among disgruntled managers, players and supporters when a team are obviously disadvantaged by conceding a goal due to a contentious offside call.

The offside rule defines active play as either interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position. Over the years, these three seemingly straightforward statements have been misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted.

An example occurred on Boxing Day last year when Manchester United were on the unfavourable end of a non-offside decision since Newcastle United's second goal was attributed as an own goal.

This was when Manchester United defender Jonny Evans stuck out his leg and diverted a Newcastle United cross into his own net. Controversy ensued because as the cross was played in Newcastle forward Papiss Cisse was in an offside position. However, a player being in an offside position is not an offence in itself. The consideration here is whether Cisse was involved in active play.

Assistant referee Jake Collins could clearly see Cisse standing in an offside position. Replays revealed the ball never made contact with Cisse as Evans deflected it past his goalkeeper. But Collins was unsure whether Cisse had touched the ball or not and, as taught in the top levels, correctly raised his flag to indicate an offside offence.

Referee Mike Dean was located centrally on the pitch and had an excellent view of the action. From his vantage point, Dean knew Cisse had not touched the ball and therefore correctly deemed he was not involved in active play by interfering with play or an opponent.

Dean showed his professionalism by approaching Collins to confer with him about the incident. So, although Collins had raised his flag to signal offside, Dean correctly allowed the goal to stand.
However, then Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson flew into a rage and vented his anger at the assistant referee, fourth official and referee. Incidentally, the FA chose to ignore Ferguson's blatant abuse of match officials.

In an attempt to resolve any confusions involving active play, Fifa has introduced amendments to official interpretations of "being involved in active play". These refer specifically to the terms "interfering with an opponent" and "gaining an advantage by being in that position".

By "interfering with an opponent", the previous interpretation was "preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent's line of vision or movement or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent".

This is now shortened to "preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent's line of vision or challenging an opponent for the ball".

According to the Boxing Day incident, Cisse neither obstructed the movement of Evans nor made a deceptive or distracting gesture or movement. To help clarify things for future seasons it can be seen that, should the same circumstance happen again, Cisse being in an offside position would still not prevent Evans from playing the ball.

In "gaining an advantage by being in that position", the previous interpretation was "playing a ball that rebounds to him off a goalpost or the crossbar having been in an offside position or playing a ball that rebounds to him off an opponent having been in an offside position".

This is now explained as "playing a ball that i) rebounds or is deflected to him off the goal post, crossbar or an opponent having been in an offside position; and ii) rebounds, is deflected or is played to him from a deliberate save by an opponent having been in an offside position. A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent, who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save), is not considered to have gained an advantage."

The upshot is that anyone who reads the laws will better understand Fifa's stance on offside.

Furthermore, following the retirement of Ferguson, it is hoped there will be less abuse of match officials on contentious decisions … although there is the notable return of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Rational Ref: Humble coin toss a match-fixer's dream

Humble coin toss will confound fight against football graft

Seemingly simple flip of a disc will confound those battling graft in football, since there are no rules on how refs must conduct it


How much is a coin toss worth? Can foolishly faking a frivolous flip and flick of a thin metallic disc prove financially tempting? You bet. Five years ago, the going rate was 100,000 yuan (US$16,000).

This was the amount Chinese referee Huang Junjie accepted from fellow referee Zhou Weixin to rig the coin toss between Manchester United and FC Shenzhen in 2007. Huang fixed the flip to ensure Shenzhen kicked off the match in Macau.

Huang and Zhou admitted this in court when they became the first referees to face trial in December 2011, following a two-year crackdown on soccer corruption in China. Soon after, Lu Jun, a former World Cup referee, stood trial. Lu was previously considered China's most respected referee, nicknamed the "golden whistle" for his impartiality.

Lu was found guilty of accepting 350,000 yuan for fixing a match in 2003 and subsequently received a five-and-a-half year jail sentence. In an instant, China's golden match official joined the ranks of corrupt referees on the mainland, who are dubbed "black whistles". These infamous black whistles also received life bans.

In recent weeks, major organisations have declared match-fixing to be widespread. A report by Europol revealed about 700 matches worldwide, including Champions League ties and World Cup qualifiers, were suspected of having been fixed.

And last week, Interpol met with Fifa officials at a conference in Kuala Lumpur jointly hosted by the Asian Football Confederation to set tougher laws in the battle against criminal syndicates suspected of match-fixing.

The AFC announced it had established a task force that would collaborate with all stakeholders and educate member associations on ways to tackle match-fixing in Asia.

Rational Ref is keen to see what kind of role, and support, match officials will be given in this initiative to combat suspect practices. Take, for example, the rigging of the seemingly straightforward coin toss.

The tradition of the coin toss is based on Western culture. Observe most Western referees and they will place the coin on top of their thumb and forefinger to flick the coin up in the air. The coin will twist and twirl in a blur and then be caught in the same hand that flipped it. Without looking at the coin and in one smooth movement, the coin is slapped onto the back of the other hand and then revealed.

This is the standard protocol of the coin toss, providing you are British, Australian, Canadian or American. Last Tuesday night, Australian referee Chris Beath performed the standard coin toss as expected during the AFC Cup match between Kitchee and Churchill Brothers from India.

But watch referees from continental Europe, Asia or South America, and the coin toss action varies considerably. Some cannot flip the coin using their thumbs, some catch the coin with both hands, some catch and reveal using only one hand, some let the coin land on an open palm, and others will let the coin fall to the ground after throwing the coin up without imparting any spin. Some referees are just clumsy and fumble the coin toss.

Furthermore, the rulebook assumes all referees know how to flip a coin. It states: "a coin is tossed and the team that wins the toss decides which goal it will attack and the other team takes the kick-off".

Since there is no accepted coin toss protocol, criminal syndicates have benefited. For instance, what's to prevent referees from catching the coin in an open palm, seeing the result and then deciding whether or not to slap it over on the other hand, depending on the desired outcome? There have been occasions where Chinese referees catch the coin in the open palm, with the wrist slap being optional.

Details are unknown about the infamous coin toss at the Manchester United versus FC Shenzhen match. If the referee did not rig the actual toss, he could have easily used another suspect method.
Hypothetically, the referee, having gone through the motions of the coin toss, could quickly look at the result and declare Manchester United would choose ends, thus leaving FC Shenzhen to kick off, which was the prearranged outcome.

Any visiting player to China, such as 33-year-old Ryan Giggs five seasons ago, could easily dismiss this as a cultural peculiarity and in any case would just want to get the match started without fuss. In hindsight, we know it was an easy 100,000 yuan for a black whistle to make.

Hence, this simple example of a corrupt coin toss is just the tip of the iceberg for AFC's new task force.

Rational Ref reckons referees on the right side of the law can assist the task force in its fight against match-fixing. After all, referees are whistleblowers.


PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 March, 2013

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Rational Ref: Genuine refereeing howlers are unforgivable

Genuine refereeing howlers are unforgivable, but it's important to know the difference

Errors in applying the laws of the game should be punished

Not all refereeing mistakes are equal; some are more equal than others. So can soccer lovers distinguish between honest mistakes and the inexcusable?

Many howlers such as incorrect handballs, offsides and penalties occur naturally as a consequence of human error, but unfortunately they obtain huge media exposure when in the English Premier League. If we cut through all the noise, vitriol and bias, many of these decisions are forgivable and only a handful are indefensible.

The unacceptable was Jan Vertonghen being adjudged offside when the Tottenham Hotspur defender should have been celebrating his second goal against Sunderland during the final seconds of the match.  

Replays clearly showed Jan Vertonghen was inside his own half as he ran clear to score a disallowed goal
Replays clearly showed Jan Vertonghen to be inside his own half as he ran clear to score a disallowed goal


Offsides are straightforward black-and-white judgment calls and assistant referees get them more right than wrong. These are genuinely honest mistakes, although referee assessors will still give ARs poor marks for judging them wrong.

However, the decision against Vertonghen was not a judgment call. Technically, it was an error in law, and referees know this is the worst kind of mistake they can commit.
 
Technical errors that involve incorrect application of the laws is tantamount to being declared incompetent and unfit for purpose. Vertonghen was in his own half when the ball was played to him by his teammate. He cannot be in an offside position, no matter what else has occurred.

Assistant referee Stuart Burt should have been rooted at the halfway line because his main task is to keep in line with the second-last defender or the ball.

Since the Sunderland goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon had gone up for his team's corner, there was no second-last defender in Sunderland's half during Spurs' counterattack and obviously the ball was way behind the halfway line when it was passed to Vertonghen. At the halfway line, Burt would have realised he was facing a no-offside situation. We can only assume he panicked and flagged.

The most infamous error in law was the "three-card trick" by former EPL referee Graham Poll when he gave Croatia's Josip Simunic a hat-trick of cautions in the same match during the 2006 World Cup.
English referee Graham Poll made possibly the worst howler in World Cup history when he booked Croatia's Josip Simunic three times before sending him off at the 2006 World Cup. Photo: AP
Asia's top referee, Ravsham Irmatov, made an unbelievable blunder at the 2013 Confederations Cup when Italy played Brazil. During a corner kick, Italy forward Mario Balotelli was hauled down by a defender and Irmatov blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.

However, moments later the ball reached Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, who promptly scored. Unfathomably, Irmatov changed his mind and awarded the goal, which is a major error in law.
Although indefensible, confident referees are chastened by such harrowing experiences and return stronger.

Irmatov quickly bounced back at last year's World Cup to set the record for refereeing the most number of World Cup matches and this year became AFC Referee of the Year for the fifth time.

In contrast, errors of judgment are simply honest mistakes. Anthony Taylor's incorrect yellow card to Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas for diving is forgivable.


Although not an excuse, the speed of the game can make it difficult to judge incidents in real time because referees are not infallible. Referees do not sleep well at night knowing that they have made errors.

Errors aside, the real problem is that players, coaches and supporters have become stubbornly accustomed to complaining about every referee decision going against them, regardless of whether it is correct or not.

In last weekend's Hong Kong Premier League match between Tai Po and YFCMD, referee Cheng Oi-cho made a courageous and correct call when he awarded a penalty to YFCMD in the final minute of added time, when the score was 0-0. Tai Po players were incensed, but video replays (watch here at 49:30) undisputedly revealed their captain, Lui Chi-hing, had manhandled YFCMD's Mamadou Hady Barry to the ground.
 
At the final whistle, Tai Po players rounded on the referee. Li Ka-chun bodychecked the referee, Jing Teng clapped sarcastically, Sze Kin-wai hurled abuse and to cap it off the Tai Po coach rushed over and confronted the referee, too.

The fact that the referee made the correct decision is beside the point. Players and coaches, no matter what the circumstances, cannot abuse match officials.

Competition organisers must publicly support referees, and the HKFA must punish Tai Po in the strongest possible terms for their unacceptable behaviour.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 January, 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Rational Ref: Spare the rod and you will spoil the players

Spare the rod and you will spoil the players

Grown men throwing tantrums should be treated like children


















 Metz midfielder Guiran N'Daw reacts as French referee Bartolomeu Varela shows him a yellow card. Photo: AFP


Grown men behaving badly have only themselves to blame. Players and coaches can have no complaints if referees treat them like naughty children.

Pundit Martin Keown recently revealed his true feelings about referees, and in particular Premiership referee Phil Dowd, when saying: "Whenever he booked me he would flash the card so quickly it felt he was about to punch me. Dowd treats players like little boys and can inflame and aggravate situations. He really used to wind me up."

The former Arsenal and England central defender should take a long, hard look in the mirror to understand why top referees treated him so.

Keown was one of the most annoying, brazen and childish defenders. He regularly directed his ire at opponents and referees to get the slightest advantage.

"At Arsenal we had all sorts of little psychological ploys to gain an advantage," he admitted. "Before kick-off we would never come out of the dressing room at Highbury until the opposition were waiting for us in the tunnel. We are Arsenal, we decide when we come out."

Actually, it is the referee who decides when both teams must come out. So they should not be surprised they are treated like spoiled brats.

It is this attitude and immaturity that influences referees. Dowd is an experienced, honest and no-nonsense type. As good parents know, when children step out of line they need to be disciplined. Dowd does this effectively, and gives as good as he gets when players start mouthing off. More referees should be like him. The only reason Keown felt "wound up" is because he could not get his own way.

Keown added: "In matches against Manchester United I would deliberately shield the officials as they came off the pitch at half-time so that Sir Alex Ferguson could not get to them. In games of this magnitude, you will seize upon any little advantage."

Keown may claim he was "protecting" match officials from the other team, but in truth he was also getting in their ear.

The best example of Keown throwing his toys was the infamous incident with striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2003. Arsenal players were outraged when United were awarded a penalty towards the end and when Van Nistelrooy's penalty was saved, Keown was like a wild-eyed, crazed monkey waving his arms and jumping around the Dutchman. Keown received a three-match ban and was fined £20,000 (HK$235,000). Arsenal were fined £275,000.

The FA sends the message it is unacceptable for players to abuse opposing players, but when players and coaches abuse officials the FA might only occasionally dish out a paltry fine of £10,000. To nip such childish behaviour in the bud, the FA must send a stern message.

Referees are rather like teachers trying to manage and monitor schoolchildren. There should automatically be respect for teachers and their authority, and whenever children misbehave and break the rules they will be disciplined.

Imagine schoolchildren mouthing off at their teachers, walking away when being spoken to, or ganging up on the teacher just because they don't agree with him or her. This is never tolerated in schools, otherwise there would be anarchy, and it should also be the same on the soccer pitch.

Referees know this, and only wish that competition organisers like the FA would support them.

Agree or disagree? Contact Rational Ref at rationalref@gmail.com

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 January, 2015

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Rational ref: diving an art or cheating

Rational ref: diving an art or cheating

While some players consider falling over to be cheating, others consider it a skill of the game


To dive or not to dive, that is the question professional players have to ponder, particularly when prowling the penalty area. Diving, which match officials call simulation, is pretending to be fouled in an attempt to deceive the referee to gain a favourable decision. Some consider this to be cheating, while others believe it to be a useful skill.

Players with a reputation for going to ground easily include Liverpool's Uruguayan Luis Suarez, Manchester City's Argentinean Sergio Aguero and Manchester United's Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia. These high-profile foreign players contribute to the stereotype of "that type of player" who cheats.

Simulation came to be due to two broad schools of soccer culture. The first recognises committed, hard-grafting physical players and the other appreciates elegant, more-accomplished skilful players. The latter, being technically gifted and sometimes breathtaking to watch, are usually prone to being taken down a peg or two by the former.

Nobody likes to be publicly embarrassed by a piece of skill so those who are victims overcompensate for their insecurities by "mowing down" whoever they consider to be "show ponies". The flip side of this is that skilful players resent being kicked and physically intimidated and, as a matter of survival, learn the benefits of falling easily. It's an ongoing battle between players of differing skill levels, and keeps officials on their toes.

In last week's Merseyside derby (28 October 2012), the pre-match hype was focused on Suarez's habit of diving but ironically it was Englishman and Everton captain Phil Neville who was booked - correctly - for simulation, with Suarez's overall performance earning him man of the match.

Even so, some players believe it is their right to cheat. Aguero, without a hint of conscience, shifted the responsibility from players to match officials by saying: "We just play our game, and it's the referee's job to know who is tricking him and who is not." So, faced with players who cheat, the blame unfairly lies with referees for failing to detect divers. This is like saying shoplifting is acceptable providing one can get away with it.

If a player dives and succeeds, the most he can "steal" is a penalty plus a straight red card for his opponent. If a player dives and is caught, the most he loses is a yellow card. However, if he is already on a caution the risk is greater. This happened to Chelsea's £50 million (HK$623 million) striker Fernando Torres last weekend. He was sent off for receiving a second caution after referee Mark Clattenburg determined he dived against Manchester United.

Truth be told, Torres went down easily. Even though he had "nutmegged" his opponent, Jonathan Evans, the ball was already running away from him and covering defender Rio Ferdinand would have cleared the danger. Therefore, it was easier for Torres to "trawl" for a foul and go down.

"I'd say 75 per cent of people could stay on their feet, and if they get touched and go down it is almost, 'Hey, I got touched so it's OK to go down'," says ex-England striker Michael Owen.

Owen was honest enough to admit, in front of ex-referee Pierluigi Collina, that he could have stayed on his feet when he won crucial penalties against Argentina in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Coaches are just as culpable as players who dive. It is accepted knowledge that former England manager Glenn Hoddle advised a young Owen to fall more often. "Sometimes Michael is too honest", said Hoddle in 1998 when he gave Owen his England debut at the age of 18.

In fact, young players naturally stay on their feet even though they are hacked, knocked and kicked about. The spirit and innocence of youth mean they just want to get on with playing without the theatre. With experience, cynicism and increasingly injury-prone bodies, the opportunity for ageing players to go down becomes ever tempting. Cue Neville.

It is this endearing youthful feature that suggests Lionel Messi is perhaps a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo. For the past year, both have been in imperious form, which has led many observers to claim it to be impossible to separate the two for the 2012 Fifa Ballon d'Or.

However, there is one noteworthy distinction. When tackled, Ronaldo tends to go down easily, while Messi chooses to ride the challenge and continue playing. By not complaining or cheating, Messi can claim the moral high ground because he is among the 25 per cent of players who stay on their feet.
Shakespeare would be proud: "The spurns that patient merit of th'unworthy takes."


PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012