Simulation games

wsc330The annual WSC writers’ competition was set up for amateur writers with a legacy left by long-standing contributor David Wangerin, who died in 2012. Submissions had to be based on any aspect of last season. The winner in 2014 was Charlie Monaghan’s account of how diving has infected all levels of the game

“Oh come on! He gave me the option!” An 11-year-old’s desperate plea for a foul to be given in a game of keep-ball during training on a chilly Saturday morning. Glaring, I shake my head and make a mental note. At the end of the session I get all the boys together – the squad is strong for the relatively low level they play at and should go on to win the league – and we summarise the main points worked on this morning. I remind them of where we are meeting tomorrow for our game and what kit to bring. Before they disperse, I introduce a new team rule.

“Anybody I catch diving in a game will be subbed.” Astonishment. “What?!” “What about exaggeration?” “What if there is some contact?” “What if the referee gives a foul?” “Everyone dives!” With their parents waiting to get on with their weekend plans, we don’t have time to go into why I will not tolerate “simulation”. I give the abbreviated answer: “It’s cheating.”

Having said goodbye to everyone and packed up the kit, I haul everything into a friend’s car and we drive to my game in the afternoon. Again, we are a decent team for the standard we play at. A combination of technically good players who should be playing at a slightly higher level and some who are stretching to be good enough to compete. The camaraderie in the team is great, and I have been made to feel very welcome since I joined a few months ago.

Our top goalscorer – a young, lightning quick winger/striker – gets across the full-back with ease and goes down, causing screams of indignation from our management and some of our players. The referee, who has refereed us several times, pauses for a second before blowing the whistle and reluctantly indicating a free-kick, from which we score. I am pleased, but feel uncomfortable about how we scored. Me and my opposite number exchange words about how it was a “bit of” a dive. I am embarrassed and apologetic, while he is resigned.

At half time the winger is buzzing, having scored and set up a goal. He is playing superbly and we will go on to win the game, largely due to his performance. He grins when I pointedly compliment him on his dive, and others laugh. He explains that he felt contact so he knew he could go down. It’s a useful skill.

That evening I read online about the Premier League games that have taken place and about my team, Celtic. A couple of match reports mention in passing “soft” penalties and “unfortunate” dismissals. Watching Match of the Day I enjoy the high standard of play from most of the teams, remembering a time when this quality would only be readily available on Sunday afternoons watching Serie A. The Goals of the Month are universally full of strength, speed and class, showing why these guys are at the pinnacle of their field. The penalties and red cards are questioned rhetorically by the commentators, impeded by their lack of playing experience to make an outright accusation of diving. In the studio, the ex-professionals are predictably ambiguous in their analysis of these incidents. “The keeper has given the ref a decision to make.” “He has given the striker the option to go to ground there.” “There is contact: he has the right to go down.”

I am 30 and have only vague memories of pre-1992 professional football. I grew up watching these pundits who are now condoning Luis Suárez and Ashley Young. I do not have nostalgia for the testosterone-filled 1970s that apparently encouraged challenges designed to break opponents. As a footballer I’m a skinny, “creative” type who would have been snapped in half then and, though I love putting in crunching tackles as much as anyone, appreciate that nowadays thugs are likely to be punished for trying to hurt skilful players so are less inclined to do so. As a footballing aesthete I’d rather watch the better teams play so I do not mind that Stoke and West Ham, horrible to watch, are usually last on Match of the Day.

But I have some personal pride, and only go down when gravity (usually abetted by an opponent) inclines me to do so. The two most annoying moments when playing are making a mistake and having an opponent win the ball off me fairly. That means he has beaten me with his ability to tackle and my ego takes a momentary hit. The best moment is when I beat a man with the ball. Sometimes he has to foul me either on purpose or accidentally. While irritating in terms of progressing with the ball, I can then allow myself a smug smirk that I have proven myself to be better – if only in this instance – than my opponent. If he fouls me, or even if there is contact and I can continue with the ball anyway, it is doubly satisfying.

Narcissistic as this probably is, I enjoy the self-worth gained by being good at football and I am baffled at the satisfaction gained when getting a free-kick or an opponent booked unfairly. I am very competitive and work very hard to beat the other team but I want to feel proud of the victory – to win dishonestly or at the price of fair play doesn’t feel like a win at all.

In defence of professional footballers, it is often claimed that trying to cheat advances the cause of the team. The financial and professional costs of losing and the nature of direct competition in organised sport mean that people are entitled and even encouraged to exploit moral ambiguity. Dishonesty is apparently negotiable depending on the reward. Maybe I should try to exploit the expenses at my work to enhance my wages: “Yes, but by leaving me in charge of the petty cash you gave me the option to pay for my bus fare with it.”

The next morning, bleary-eyed due to watching the Football League Show and its incrementally decreasing quality, I arrive in time to set up the goals and pitch with the help of some parents, and count all the boys in. I pay the referee and chat to the opposing manager. After a brief warm-up, the boys come in and we remind ourselves of the emphasis for today’s game: movement off the ball and penetration from defence to midfield and midfield to attack. I encourage the players to take a touch when receiving the ball, even if under pressure, unless there is a clear first-time pass on. If one-on-one, take an opponent on if you feel comfortable doing so. If not, protect the ball and find a team-mate, before moving into position to help your team-mate out.

“Will we really get subbed if we go down too easily?” A new euphemism, perhaps from watching Match of the Day this morning. “Yes. It is immoral. If we win unfairly, we don’t really win.” Within a few minutes of the game we are a couple of goals up, clearly the stronger team by a distance. At half time I will ensure we focus on keeping the ball instead of just scoring as many goals as possible, in order to not demoralise the opponents. One of their midfielders goes down easily as he runs at our full-back and a free-kick is given. Our captain points out to me that HE dived, and he is not being subbed. Did the referee make the mistake on purpose, or was he conned by the dive? The defender and some of our parents shout at the referee. I sigh. That will have to be next weekend’s lesson.

From WSC 330 August 2014