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An Apologia for Diving in Football

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During Sunday afternoon's match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford, Ashley Young was accused of taking a dive. During the first half, as he broke into Villa's penalty area, he was clipped by defender Ciaran Clark; Clark tried to get his leg out of the way, but Ashley Young, looking to gain a penalty, ensured that contact was made, then leapt to the ground in a heap.

The referee pointed to the spot, and Wayne Rooney converted the subsequent penalty. In the game's aftermath, Alec McLeish decried the decision and also the 'cheating' of Young, whilst even the player's own manager S'Ralex Ferguson churlishly admitted that the winger went down easily. All around the country people made rubbish Tom Daley puns and lambasted Young for encapsulating everything that's wrong in the game. I'm not going to join that crowd; I'm going to praise Ashley Young's actions.

Let me first make one thing clear; simulation should be against the rules. If no contact is made and a player acts as if there was, then the referee can and should punish the player for that offence. And there are obvious ways that diving could be eradicated from football; issuing significant bans retrospectively to high-profile players would vastly diminish the incentive for players to go to ground easily. But the key word in that last sentence is 'incentive'. When a player goes to ground they are making a cost-benefit analysis of what best serves their team's interests. It is a legitimate one to for those players to make.

Players are employed by their clubs to do a job. They're given outrageous salaries to churn out results, win trophies and gain their clubs further success and revenue. What they're not there to do is to uphold abstract Corinthian values of sportsmanship and fair play. When Ashley Young decided to try to gain the penalty on Sunday a few things would have went through his mind. Firstly, is the probability of, were he to carry on, he'd be able to create a goalscoring chance. Second, is whether that likelihood is outweighed by the potential benefits of going down; namely winning a penalty and perhaps getting Clark sent off. Finally are the risks of taking the dive; the decision not being given, a yellow card for himself, and the adding to of an already growing infamy which may mean that borderline decisions go against him in future. Taking these into consideration, Young took the decision to hit the deck; and it paid off.

We often applaud acts in which players give preference to sportsmanship over success. This is tantamount to a club's shareholders rewarding someone who throws a share of the company's profits to a struggling rival; it's simply not what the business (and make no mistakes, football is a business) is about. For example in 2000, ref-shoving fascist-sympathiser Paolo di Canio was awarded the FIFA Fair Play award for catching the ball and spurning a certain goal, as opposing keeper Paul Gerrard lay on the floor injured. If I were a West Ham fan I'd have been incensed; a paid employee of the club was refusing to do his job. Why is a player lying on the floor through injury any worse than them leaving themselves out of position? It's simply not the concern of the other side; their concern should be, exclusively to win.

Another example is panto-villain Luis Suarez's blatant hand-ball to deny Ghana a spot in the World Cup semi-finals. Suarez was rightly sent off for preventing a certain goal; but that's what it was. A certain goal. A goal that would have sent his country, Uruguay, out of the competition. In that moment, Suarez decided that his preventing the goal, and incurring a sending-off was the preferable option to allowing his opponents a certain victory. It proved to be the correct decision, as Uruguay triumphed in the ensuing shoot-out.

My argument is not to say that 'rules are there to be broken'. But that it's right for players to weigh up the benefits of breaking that rule with the cost of getting caught; if that results in scoring a few dishonest goals, then I don't really care. Players are paid to do a job by their clubs, and sometimes that necessarily entails angering a few people and fighting dirty. Dive away Young. We'll make a Tom Daley out of you yet.

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