Discouraging divers: how football can eliminate playacting from the game

Replay cameras spotted Didier Drogba deviously peeking at the referee between agonising clutches to his face after receiving what appeared to be an elbow to the head in Chelsea’s Champions League clash with Napoli. The Ivorian wanted to make sure that his theatrics had worked, that the referee had given Chelsea the foul. He had. Those same replays also revealed that the Napoli defender’s arm was nowhere near Drogba’s face. It was the most obvious example of simulation. It was dishonest, unsporting, illegal and, sadly, a common occurrence in modern football that has largely come to define the game.

Fans and presumably football’s governing bodies have had enough of playacting, of sportsmen looking to win penalties and get the opposition booked. We would all be happier if we never again had to see a game’s result influenced by a player’s efforts to deceive the referee. Yet you would be hard pressed to sit down and watch a full 90 minutes without noticing at least one obvious dive.

Fans, writers, commentators, and football’s governing bodies’ approach to the problem has largely been focused on appealing to a player’s sense of sporting integrity. We suggest players should choose not to dive because that’s not what honest professionals do and because it is bringing the game into disrepute. But while this statement is completely true, there has been little done to rid the game of diving. Indeed, damage to a player’s reputation isn’t enough of an incentive to stop most of them from falling to the ground theatrically.

The first thing drilled into my head as an undergraduate student of economics was that people make decisions based on incentives. Faced with multiple choices, rational individuals ultimately make decisions that maximize their utility. Utility can mean different things based on individual preferences (the classic economic example being that some individuals have a higher preference for free time than money and thus choose to work jobs that afford them more free time but pay less) but in the real world we indeed typically make decisions that we perceive are the best for us. By the same token, footballers choose whether to dive or not on the basis of the expected outcome of that decision.

If the pros of diving outweigh the cons, the player dives. Football is a massive business. Players and coaches are under a great deal of pressure to win games because winning is accompanied by financial rewards. The payoff for qualifying for the Champions League or avoiding relegation to lower leagues can easily reach millions of dollars. With so much at stake in each fixture, a team is effectively encouraged to take every possible measure in order to gain a competitive advantage. This includes diving to win penalties and free kicks and to get the opposition sent off. Likewise, individual players are valued according to their individual performances. Individual performance is largely determined by a player’s contribution to his team. If a player assumes winning a penalty that leads to his team winning a game will keep him in the starting lineup, then that player has an incentive to try and win that penalty whether fairly or not. The financial rewards of winning in modern football have created a win-at-all-cost atmosphere in the professional game which has indirectly encouraged dishonest methods of gaining a competitive advantage. This is not going to change. We must also assume players are remarkably competitive and want to win regardless of the financial rewards. This is why we see diving at youth and amateur levels where no money is involved at all.

To combat footballers’ strong incentive to dive, the game needs strongĀ deterrents. Let’s consider those currently in place aimed at discouraging simulation. Overwhelmingly, the most severe in-game punishment a player receives if he is judged to be diving is a yellow card whereby the player is warned but is still allowed to continue the game. Damage to a player’s reputation in the global footballing community also discourages diving. Earlier I mentioned that different people have different preferences and the same applies here. Certain players appear to be unconcerned about how diving impacts their reputation and therefore have a preference for diving (Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez have often been accused of going to ground easily yet it has hardly stopped them from doing it.) Other players (Scott Parker comes to mind) appear more concerned with maintaining their honest, tough, professional reputation and choose not to dive.

So how do the football governing bodies limit the amount of simulation? I would argue for more retroactive suspensions when a player is caught clearly going to ground dishonestly (such bans are given occasionally but not on a large enough scale.) I’ll admit there are problems with retroactive suspensions. While they punish the club of the diver they do not help the opposing team. For example, Daniel Sturridge appeared to dive to earn a penalty and the only goal in Chelsea’s 1-0 FA Cup win over QPR. Subsequently banning Sturridge would obviously hurt Sturridge and Chelsea but would not put QPR back in contention for the FA Cup.

However, handing out retroactive bans for anyone trying to deceive the referee would sharply decrease the instances of players diving. Had such a system been in place over the last couple of years, would Sturridge have even gone to ground knowing it could cost him three games of his season? It may take some getting used to for the players, but I think ultimately very punitive measures against diving would all but eliminate this dishonest practice from the sport.

Players dive because, more often than not, they are rewarded for it. How many free kicks did Drogba earn against Napoli by going to ground when there was minimal, if any, contact? It is remarkably difficult for match officials to detect diving in normal time. They have one shot at getting it right without the benefit of close-up slow motion replays. But how likely would Drogba have been to go to ground in that game if he had already been banned for doing so several times throughout his career? To eliminate this sadly pervasive practice in Football and repair the damage it has done to the game’s reputation, harsher punishments for divers need to be sanctioned.

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