Let’s set the stall out early: Luis Suarez dives. Gareth Bale dives. Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Steven Gerrard and Eden Hazard dive. It is a problem that has plagued English (and world) football for at least the last 50 years and, just like clockwork, the tiresome debate has arisen again thanks to a series of incidents in the last two weeks.
But, where Liverpool’s No.7 largely aims to cheat his opponents, there is at least (for the most part) a thought process behind the Tottenham star’s capers.
There was an argument put forth that, while Suarez drew criticism from around the globe this past week for the embarrassing (and highly entertaining) attempt to con Lee Mason into giving a penalty to Liverpool, Bale escaped similar condemnation for incidents against Aston Villa and Scotland. At present, Suarez is the more evolved diver with the much more questionable character thanks to his own contemptuous acts.
Observers are split into two factions when it comes to Bale, regardless of their affiliation with Tottenham or otherwise. He is either just another cheat, a scourge on the game and as bad as the rest of them, or someone who has received one too many whacks to his ankles and is just looking to preserve his career.
That is the picture that Bale himself paints in one of many candid assessments of his own antics, remarking: “Whenever a challenge does come in I’m more likely to try and get out of the way and not get hurt rather than get hurt.”
In fairness, there are not many players in world football with the ability to run with the ball at near top speed and, when you’re clipped or tripped, injuries happen. Charlie Adam’s crude season-ending challenge on Bale when at Blackpool springs to mind, as does his pointless hack in a pre-season friendly against Tottenham in July.
Likewise, there are few footballers with the close control, trickery and total disdain for the reputation of centre-backs than Suarez. He induced more fouls than any other Premier League player in 2011-12 while Bale was 33rd in the list, which, I suppose, backs up his claim that he tries to avoid contact.
Bale’s propensity for taking a tumble appears on the rise this year but many shepherds of the Welshman’s reputation believe that it is a product of being kicked around the pitch for 90 minutes. Bale said it himself after the FA Cup tie with Stevenage, describing his tumbling as a means of avoiding injury: “I try not to get in the way of tackles. If people want to say I’m diving then they can but I’m trying to get out of the way and save myself, my career.”
This was certainly the case when a long chase resulted in the 23-year-old plunging to the turf in anticipation of the swinging boot of Brad Guzan. When it didn’t arrive, the American goalkeeper chuckled as he returned to his goal while Bale skidded across the surface opting not to appeal.
Of course, his reluctance to scream “foul” could be part of the ploy and it is a nigh-on-impossible task to genuinely work out if he is cheating or merely frightened of being sidelined. There are examples of him diving and of him being taken out and as such it is probably somewhere in between.
It is not as easy to defend Suarez, though, and, indeed, many of the most staunch Liverpudlians choose instead to draw comparisons with other offenders and ask why the Uruguayan receives a raw deal. Much like the boy who cried wolf, nowadays the forward is almost brazenly ignored by officials for even the most blatant of fouls.
Robert Huth’s stamp was clear violent conduct and a red card might well have helped Liverpool to three points, whereas Norwich City’s solution to the Suarez puzzle had echoes of Sebastian Chabal’s slaying of Chris Masoe (Google it).
But there have been incidents this year – dives at Anfield against Stoke City and Arsenal as well as countless others in the two years that he has spent on Merseyside. Those in charge, and we as onlookers, should analyse each incident in isolation, yet, when the same name pops up, a reputation is born and supercedes rational thinking.
One belief must be questioned, though. This is not part of a nationwide agenda to bedevil Suarez. The idea that Latin and Mediterranean foreigners have blighted the game on these shores with their dark arts may have shreds of truth but gives them too much credit.
Diving has been part of English football for decades – Manchester City’s Francis Lee was described by referees’ chief Keith Hackett as someone with a “reputation of falling down easily” and the 13 penalties that he netted from his top-scoring 33 goals in 1971-72 season are often cited as evidence – despite contrary reports claiming that only two were won by Lee himself.
But that is neither here nor there: Diving did not suddenly surface with the influx of foreign footballers. It may have exacerbated the problem but this was undoubtedly magnified by the introduction of the Sky Sports era and its endless replays. Suarez was herded into the nefarious bracket of a “cancer on the game” by Jim Boyce, Fifa vice-president, a slight more extreme than anyone in the domestic game dare peddle.
Yet, until the game’s authorities step in and attempt to implement a cure for the most infuriating facet of gamesmanship, Suarez will keep trying to con his counterparts with Bale not far behind. In such a high-stakes environment, the threat of a mere yellow card is not much of a deterrent.
It is eternally frustrating that other ‘cancers’ are left to fester, though, and perhaps it is more lamentable to see managers deploy ‘destroyers’ to foul and stop dangerous opponents by any means necessary – but that is another argument for another day.
The sad fact is that Suarez will conceivably have to live with this treatment for the rest of his playing days. It is a great shame that such a talented player will need to summon every ounce of his ability just to get what is sometimes justifiably his inside a penalty box. But, as the architect of his own downfall, his two years at Anfield should provide a lesson for Bale, whose excuses will only stand up for so long.