Sunday 30 August ~
“Conscience,” the great but notably sceptical critic HL Mencken once wrote, “is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.” Yet the thought that someone, or rather several cameras and a global audience, might be looking didn’t seem to disturb Arsenal’s Eduardo this week when he went down (or, in the words of Arsène Wenger, “got out the way of the keeper”) against Celtic and won a penalty that effectively killed Wednesday’s Champions League play-off tie.
A two-match UEFA ban and universal media vilification may yet make him sorrier than he looked when he converted the resultant spot-kick. But he wasn’t the first player to look like he took a dive, and he certainly won’t be the last. UEFA president Michel Platini is more optimistic, and thinks that the experiment with extra referees around the penalty box, to be tried in the Europa League this season, offers the kind of scrutiny that will deter future offenders. “One day players will give up simulating because referees will see them,” he said this week. “For years players have cheated because the referees were not of a good enough quality.”
You’ll notice that he said nothing about not cheating because it’s the right thing to do. As an ex-pro, and someone who has also admitted that he’d have taken a dive in the 1986 World Cup semi-final against West Germany if he’d had the chance, he presumably knows that although diving is against the rules, there are circumstances where players will justify it as a moral levelling of old, or more recent, scores (in Platini’s case, the 1982 semi-final when West Germany’s Harald Schumacher flattened Patrick Battiston with impunity). Or they will do it simply because they are cheats, and are happy to live with that. Few players or managers are going to lament any dubious decisions that suddenly turn the game their way. At the same time, few will go on the record to say that they actively cheat, or encourage their players to cheat, in order to get results.
There are exceptions. Urawa Reds’ admirably frank German manager Volker Finke this week publicly criticised his Spanish striker Sergio Escudero for staying on his feet in the box when he was apparently fouled in a game against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. “I felt extremely angry when [Escudero] did not fall when he was fouled,” Finke said. “He should have fallen down and given us a chance because we could have drawn the game.” Finke, it should be pointed out, is under pressure because of poor results. And when results are at stake, sportsmanship be damned.
Finke came back on message and apologised when he was slammed by the Japanese FA president Motoaki Inukai, who said the German was “not qualified to be a manager”. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Japanese FA’s referee committee, Yasuhiro Matsuzaki, said Finke’s statement was “outrageous at a time when people are trying to stamp out simulation”. Yet Finke only said out loud what most managers and players secretly think. You are naive to play fair. If you fall over under a challenge and the referee gives a penalty, you’ll gladly accept slaps on the back from your team-mates, and a quiet word of gratitude later from the boss.
On the other hand, if every player was like Sergio Escudero we wouldn’t be drafting in extra referees, or proposing official replays, or talking about bans and fines for divers. You can only hope that the striker was not so scarred by his manager’s rollicking that next time he simply goes down and hopes for the whistle. It’s reassuring to think instead that, faced with the choice of playing for the penalty or taking the chance to score, one player chose the honourable path. Not because he thought someone might be looking, but because he wanted to try to score a goal, which in football is the right thing to do. Ian Plenderleith