On the eve of an important soccer event in my own life, to soccer we turn again. Right now I can't resist but make an argument I've already made, only more emphatically and with renewed conviction: that diving in soccer is largely a product of the inadequate advantage rule.
I probably should have talked more about this during the World Cup, because diving seems to be Americans' preferred reason for disliking the beautiful game and dismissing out of hand. I could hardly read anything last summer about soccer in the US without coming across some disdainful comment about how diving makes soccer un-watchable. And that now infamous challenge by Carles Puyol on Arjen Robben in the final would have been a perfect way to explain the real deal with diving.
In addition the issue comes come up so often in my own playing, with my being consistently the most fouled player on the field, and what can I say... it makes me extremely angry.
So first, let's think about that Arjen Robben play again. Robben is through on goal in the second half of the World Cup Final, and feels contact, which he knows is illegal, from Carles Puyol. Because he knows the current advantage rule is in force, he knows he has two choices: go down, take the foul, earn Puyol a probable red card and himself a free kick well outside the area, or go on and try to score. To Robben's credit, he chose the latter course, figuring his chances of scoring were still rather high, despite having been fouled by Puyol. Unfortunately for him (but thank God for soccer) he failed to score. It was probably the only moment in which I sympathized for him in the entire game.
Robben's situation illustrates perfectly what's wrong with the advantage rule: when the player goes on and tries to “play the advantage,” the referee is obligated to go along with it and not call a foul. Which is often why, when players are fouled, they don't go and try to keep playing. They know that if they go on and try to keep playing, they might gain just enough of an advantage that it isn't obvious to the referee anymore that they don't want to keep playing and not take the foul. What's the best way to signal to a referee that you don't want to try to play an advantage, that you just want to take a free kick? To stop playing altogether, and to hit the deck.
Now, if this argument is close to correct, we should also see players “signal” that they've been fouled in other ways, not just by going down. And that's exactly what we see, often with shirt pulling. Lots of the time, for obvious fould, players will literally stop trying to play, again with the same intent. They're saying to the referee, “I'm done trying to gain an advantage through open play, and I'd like a free kick now.”
The ultimate problem with this system is that the referees have the power to decide for the players whether they will keep playing or whether they get a free kick. But there's no way a referee can know what choice a team really wants to make. What if the team has a player who can hit great free kicks from 40 yards? Then the team will be less likely to want to play the advantage. What if the team has no free kick takers at all? Then they might want to always play the advantage no matter how small.
The game would be so much better if the players could continue trying to play, even after they were fouled, knowing that if their advantage didn't work out, they would get the free kick. The referees could signal this by raising their arms or flags without blowing the whistle to stop play. In this case Robben wouldn't have had to make a terrible choice between “diving” and between trying to score: he would have known tht he could go on and try to score and still get the free kick even if he failed.
From my own playing I know that it's an all-too common problem. All the time I'll get fouled, with a player swiping at my feet or ankles, even if I want to continue playing, to see if I can still win the ball, it's not worth it if there's only a 50-50 chance that I will. In those instances, I'll go down and take the foul instead. Opposing players will accuse me of diving. Really it's soccer's fault for having such odd rules. And of course, their fault for fouling me in the first place.