By Amy Gaeta.
A quick Google search of “diving association football” will churn out a long list of current and past footballers with reputations for diving. Sadly, many of these footballers are or have played for Liverpool. This list includes, but is not limited to, Mohamed Salah, Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, and perhaps soon Sadio Mané pending recent accusations from Pep Guardiola. Jürgen Klopp has tried to correct this image by holding his squads to higher standards, including publicly criticising Salah for an apparent dive. As fans, we should worry about these reputations for a few reasons, including maintaining the integrity of the game and club. But what I worry about most is how these diving performances shape our understanding of what pain and injury look like, how it affects the health of players, and what diving implies about the social status of injury.
The long-standing great debate about diving vs. fouling tends to agree on one thing; diving is certainly not a nice thing to do. Some say diving is a strategic choice because the rewards often outweigh the risks, no one is actually hurt. Others disavow diving, calling it a cheap move as it creates false blame on the opponent. For me, the difficult part about the diving debate is about what diving suggests about the stakes of officials separating a “fake” from a “real” injury. What are the larger effects and implications of diving when we consider football’s powerful social influence? How do refs fairly make these calls? Is there a responsibility to always believe players claiming to be injured?
My questions arose after the Manchester United v. Liverpool match last month. My social media feeds were filled with jokes about diving players, including Divock Origi’s hit to the ankle. It was Welsh national team coach Ryan Giggs and Welsh and United’s winger Daniel James that got the most attention. Jamie Jackson at The Guardian reported that Giggs publicly supported James’ “streetwise” decision to stay down for three minutes, appearing unconscious, on the pitch after a run-in with Croatian defender Domagoj Vida. James was, however, able to play the remainder of the match. He passed all the medical tests. The protocols indicate that even the suspicion of a concussion mandates that a player leave the game, and so, James passed with flying colours despite the dramatic fall.
Anyone who watched James play for United against Liverpool in the October 20th match may be even more sceptical, as he also continued to play after what appeared like a nasty head injury, giving Fabinho his 4th yellow card this season (having previously stayed down after no apparent contact, so that when he was actually injured, the referee ignored it).
Peter McCabe, the chief executive of Headway, a UK brain injury charity, stated the larger issue of James’ possible dive during the Wales match:
“Not only has he put his own medical team under intense and unfair scrutiny, but he’s also set a dangerous example for the millions watching at home.”
McCabe is right to say that faking a concussion turns brain injury into a cheap tactic, and I would add, it is insulting to all people who live and die with traumatic brain injuries, especially since these injuries can often go undetected for years. So, people may walk and talk just fine, like James, while inside their brain is silently suffering.
Even though I believe all this, when I see a dive, or at least think I see a dive, I laugh. Next, I curse a bit and shout a good “get off the ground!” Of course, my reaction varies on which team is trying to get an advantage. I still find myself fuming over Harry Kane grabbing his face after being pushed in the shoulder by Dejan Lovren in the Spurs fixture last month. Seeing anything that even slightly deviates from the norm leads me to believe they are faking, and of course, that is how dives are identified.
I watch football as a fan first, but my fan-identity sometimes overpowers my experience of living with chronic pain and as a professional researcher of disability. When someone fakes an injury, my laughing is covering up how insulted I am. A voice inside me says, “Oh, so that’s what you think pain looks like? Injury is just another play for you? How lucky you get that choice.”
In disability studies, we explore how ideas about disability, injury, and health are formed, as well as the effects of these ideas, generally speaking. So, even if a footballer is not disabled, their immense physical capabilities and risk for injury influences how we think about the limits of physical bodies. For instance, critics of diving claim that diving is pathetic to watch because it’s so unrealistic that such strong and sturdy professional athletes get injured so easily. I take issue with this argument because it is unfair to hold footballers to superhuman standards. Everyone is subject to injury, no matter their physical health status. If they were superhuman, then they would not need to dive in the first place.
Beyond football, there is a long-standing history and critique of faking injuries and, even more so, assuming that someone is faking an injury. We call this the disability faker. The disability faker concept does not only refer to disability, but anyone who is sick or injured (or claiming to be). A classic example is a person making themselves look weak or sick as they beg for money, or a person exploiting the use of a wheelchair to get special seating and priority access.
The problem with is the fraud is that their “performance” creates misleading assumptions of how disability and injury appear. When someone fakes, they contribute to a domino effect of mistrust and paranoia. Faking injuries and disabilities have affected laws, social attitudes, and medical standards. Research has shown that people are most suspicious of disability faking when the person is asking for something or receiving special treatment, an element of someone potentially not being deserving.
Why should football be any different? Is there not always a bit of biased suspicion when the opposition team gets an advantage, especially? Especially in the age of VAR, I find myself waiting for decisions while paranoid and imagining all the ways that a team does or does not deserve an advantage. We saw such paranoia in Pep Guardiola’s recent unwarranted identification that Sadio Mané is a diver, following the controversial yellow card given to Mané booked for “diving” against Aston Villa earlier this month (even though still images show the defender’s foot stood on Mané’s toes). Guardiola’s comment cannot be taken lightly, as I am suggesting here, that diving is cheating as well as a disgrace to one’s character and attitude toward injury.
Footballers have a social responsibility to stop diving because it gives us reason to distrust the appearance of injury. As a fan, I wonder how my reaction to assume players are “faking it” may spread to influence the way I see people on the street, my friends, my colleagues, etc. Yes, people have faked disabilities before, but what does it say about a society if we take faking as the default? Faking disabilities and injuries will lead people to face further health scrutiny, have their privacy invaded, and medical teams will be trained to discount the voices of their patients. For instance, if you’ve ever had to convince a doctor that something is wrong with you, despite their test results, you know the frustration and utter embarrassment of it all.
Diving is not harmless at all; it creates a culture of suspicion and could lead to real injuries being discounted. The more you dive, the more you lose credibility, and then you put yourself in actual risk of getting hurt and nobody believing you. In short, you’re the “boy who cried wolf.” What is ten times worse is that your credibility affects the credibility of their coach and teammates. One person’s diving reputation could put other players at risk of their injuries not being taken as seriously.
Here, officials are put in a difficult place; do they believe a player and therefore penalise the opposition team, or do they call a dive as they see it? These options leave little room for the more ambiguous potential dives. Surely, officials cannot believe every fall and injury at face value, or else every match would turn into utter chaos. However, addressing the wider effects and implications of diving, beyond the pitch, may discourage such fakery.
Referees have expressed how irresponsible it is for players to dive, because the referees, like myself, get conditioned to assume any player that does not fall in the “correct way,” especially “famous divers,” are faking. Medical teams, even the top-tier ones, are still people who also subject to internalising this suspicion toward diving. One person’s dive runs the risk of pre-empting more incorrect calls. Further, in an indirect response to diving suspicion, 2010 World Cup referee Howard Webb proposed that VAR would lead to less diving as players would be under more surveillance. It is unclear if Webb’s prophecy has come true.
To discourage diving, new diving protocols were initiated at the start of the 2017-18 Premier League season. After the weekend matches, a committee reviews footage of each weekend match footage, and if diving is suspected, they must unanimously vote to implement two-match suspensions accordingly. Typically, these calls are made per predetermined signs of fakery, including a mismatch between contact and injury, a time lapse between impact and injury, and a player holding their body in unnatural pain response. Yet, per these general guidelines, if a player can fake it, they can make it, so to speak. So far, there’s been no shortage of diving and these suspensions have only occurred a few times.
[ED: A lot of “diving” is actually performed in order to draw the referee’s attention to a foul that is impeding the player but not sending him to the ground. However, this is very different from rolling around holding an unaffected body part.]
Further, the diving detection protocols follow normal conceptions of how pain and injury appear and how do they not. Personally, living with an invisible chronic pain condition has taught me what a limited image of pain that divers project. Some days, my right arm joint-condition results in strange flare ups in my jaw and causes all my senses to be extra sensitive. If you saw me in this state, you’d think I was the happiest person in the world as my condition stays largely hidden. So, even while players perform what pain “looks like,” the ankle grabbing and clenched jaw, pain and injury take many forms and are not always cohesive or even visible.
We can think here of how many players, including Jordan Henderson with his chronic heel ache condition, regularly play full matches with injuries. Or, on the other hand, we can remember all the players who play despite more explicit injuries, most famously former LFC centre-back Martin Škrtel who refused to be substituted after suffering a 5-inch-long fresh wound on his head during a 2018 Fenerbahce game against Kasimpasa. My point is that players, officials, medical teams, and fans need to assess how their attitudes toward diving calls are made and have a more capacious understanding of how injury may appear. In doing so, we can work toward a fairer game and holding divers more accountable for the larger stakes of their actions.
Sure, I don’t watch football to learn about health standards. Although, it is foolish to say football doesn’t affect how we think about bodies, their weaknesses, and their limits. Someone could easily argue that football is separate from the real world; on the pitch, players bump, chase, kick, jump, and run in all sorts of legal ways that the rest of the world doesn’t allow.
So, players may think faking a concussion for tactical advantage does not compare to faking a concussion for charity money, for example. They would be wrong. There is a social responsibility for players to perform according to the rules, which were created under the goal of sportsmanship and fairness. If not, it’s an insult to themselves, their players, and around watching around the world as diving implies that injury is just some object to be played. It’s not just a game, it could be someone’s life.
Ph.D. Candidate, English Department
Literary Studies & Visual Cultures
Instructor, English 140
Instructor, The Writing Center
Co-Editor, Invisible Disability Project