This weekend’s Manchester United v Aston Villa Match was notable for several reasons. Aside from being an absolute cracker of a match it was Aston Villa’s first victory at Old Trafford since 1983. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, the top four teams in English football in 1983 were Liverpool, Southampton (relegated from the Championship last season and currently 14th in League One), Nottingham Forrest (currently fourth in the Championship) and Manchester United. Arsenal finished sixth that year and Chelsea were champions of what was then League Two. Hell, the back pass to the keeper was still legal then.
The victory moved Villa into the coveted fourth spot in the league table, a position that Liverpool can at present only prayerfully observe from three positions below and five points behind in the table. That United was not awarded the six minutes of stoppage time to which the Old Trafford faithful have become accustomed when losing at home sent Sir Alex Ferguson into an arm-waving red-faced gum-chewing display toward the fourth official that would have seen managers of lesser stature sent to the stands. After the match, Ferguson was quick to call for the the awarding of stoppage time to be removed from the discretion of the match official.
But in terms of the culture of football, at least as measured by the latest media obsession, it was notable that Wayne Rooney’s yellow card for diving did not send the English press into to fits of righteous indignation as had been the case earlier with Eduardo and David Ngog. This is particularly surprising since, as was not the case with Eduardo and Ngog, Rooney has been outspoken on the subject in the past. “I’d never dive,” Rooney said in October of 2006. “I’d like to think of myself as an honest player. That’s the way I play. I don’t like diving, football doesn’t need it.”
Rooney was not the only player booked last weekend for simulation. Future of US soccer Jozy Altidore was given a yellow in Hull’s otherwise forgettable match against Blackburn. That Altidore’s dive resulted in no comment is perhaps understandable: the replay showed that Altidore appeared to have tripped himself. More to the point, Hull is not Manchester United and Altidore is American.
But for a high profile player like Rooney to dive in such a high profile match and the result not to be scores of sputtering high profile commentary on the threat of unsporting behavior to the integrity of football speaks volumes about an essential hypocrisy in the English game. Writing in Telegraph, Rory Smith observes that the English “view diving as a foreign trait.” He continues, “Most of those players held up as practitioners of the dark arts, after all, are not English, and yet there are dozens of English players who did not need to be taught anything about enjoying a quick tumble . . . because they’re native, we forgive them, we insist they’re only doing it to keep up with the foreigners, we believe that, had it not been for the outsider invasion of English football, all would be pure and clean.”
Paul Doyle, writing in the Guardian, states the issue more plainly: “Like fornicators from the clergy, they are guilty of craven hypocrisy. Much of the media are guilty of something worse: bigotry. If a foreigner did it, deport the swine. If an Englander did it, move along, nothing to see here.”
Perhaps there was no firestorm because Rooney was moving away from goal, was outside the box and would not have been awarded a penalty kick. Perhaps the hubbub that surrounded Eduardo and Ngog was precisely that they dove in the box to secure a scoring opportunity. What is one to think, then, of the pass that Steven “If I ever saw one of my team-mates diving, I’d definitely have a word” Gerrard gets from most commentators (and Liverpool supporters) every time a shadow crosses his path inside the box causing him to collapse like me on ice skates? The Arsenal traveling supporters were certainly happy to make Gerrard aware that it has been noticed that he has a propensity to fall over with their chant on Sunday of “all you do is fucking dive.”
Or is it simply that Rooney and Gerrard are not only English, and sometime-captains of the England squad, but also massively exposed role models, not to mention product endorsers? Whatever the case it was gratifying to see match officials willing to award cards for simulation. With the next World Cup only a few short months away, none of us wants to see a repeat of the outrageously theatrical spurt of diving that permeated the 2006 World Cup.
Ugly, dirty cheating though it is, diving is nevertheless a part of the modern game. It is also a part of the game that soccer bashers in this country see to the exclusion of most everything else that is worthy and admirable about the game. As Rooney once said, “It isn’t fair for players to dive and try to cheat the other team. And it is not just cheating your opponents, you are cheating the fans as well.” Please keep that in mind, Jozy.