In Slate, Austin Kelly dissects the dive in soccer. Diving – a player intentionally taking a fall in an effort to cause the referree to call a foul on an opposing player – is often scorned by soccer purists, most often when the diver plays for the other team. Count me as among the scorners. Diving isn’t about being better than the other team, it is about conning the referee. Fabio Grosso’s too-easy trip over a sprawling Australian defender garnered the unjust award of a penalty kick that won the game. It was wrong to have a hard-played 90+ minute match turn on theatrics and the referree’s decision.
Kelly says, “far from being a sign of corruption, diving is, in certain ways, a civilizing influence.” Why yes, let us dispense with hard play and the attendent risks, and just pretend to play hard. This sounds like soccer as professional wrestling.
But Kelly persuades me, almost, with his insight. The scorn heaped on divers is mostly “distaste for the spectacle,” he explains. And not distaste with sporting spectacle in general, Kelly said, but with the nature of this particular kind of spectacle:
American sports are loaded with comic set pieces—a hockey player tossing his gloves for a ceremonial tussle or a baseball manager kicking dirt at the umpire. Like tumbling soccer players, these performers act to provoke sympathy or indignation. The difference is in the style of emotional drama.
In most American sports, the theatrics are aggressive. They are not operatic displays of vulnerability. To appreciate diving, we must sympathize or scorn the injured player—we must get into the melodrama. Some fans are afraid to take the plunge, preferring to argue that diving makes soccer players seem like babies or, worse still, women. … Their distaste for the dive is rooted in an idea of masculinity, not in an analysis of the game itself. That idea of masculinity is preventing them from enjoying a pretty good show.
I can certainly agree with Kelly when he says, “There is nothing more depressing than a player who goes to the ground when he might have scored.” That is just the issue raised by Grosso’s fall. He was a step or two away from an honest shot on goal, but chose the easy artifice of a dive.
(Found via The Sports Economist, which has been running some excellent soccer commentary during the World Cup.)