The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Going to Ground in America and Europe

Thierry Henry goes to ground in the World Cup. Athletes, most of them, aren’t moral paragons, just people who are good at playing games. Morally, some of them are better than others, just as with anyone, and it makes no sense to treat them, as a class, as though they were exemplars of the virtuous life. We know this; we aren’t naive. We read the papers.

Nevertheless, for most of us, there’s an irresistible desire to see athletic success as the result of inner virtue. No matter how badly players behave in public, we want to see their accomplishments on the field as the expression of some inner core of strength, tenacity, or courage. The adjectives change with the culture, the English “fighting spirit” becomes the Brazilian “creative flair,” but the process is always the same. Seeing a goal or a touchdown as the physical product of a quality we admire and want to possess not only allows us to idolize players who may not otherwise give us much reason to do so, it also allows the game to assume a more significant place within our own inner lives.

The game, of course, doesn’t always cooperate. There are times when it becomes almost impossible to explain success with reference to anything good. Different sports suffer from this over time: witness the hostility that accompanied Barry Bonds’s pursuit of the home-run record in baseball last season. We don’t need our heroes to be heroes, but there’s only so much villainy we can take.

We have ways of getting around this. One of them is by creating pseudo-virtues, qualities that aren’t really all that admirable or moral but that can be treated as if they were within the specific context of sports. For example: in America over the last ten or twelve years, we’ve seen the gradual rise of the ideal of “competitiveness,” the quality that makes a player desperate to win at all costs. This can be, and is sometimes acknowledged as, a deeply unhealthy and personally destructive quality to possess—Michael Jordan, whose pathological need to win probably popularized the concept, has suffered from its consequences in various darkly rumored ways—but within American sports it’s largely treated as an attribute of will, a mark of character that’s worthy of respect. Run a search for the phrase “is his competitiveness” and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

This is interesting for any number of reasons, one of which is that it helps to answer a question I’ve been wondering about for a long time: why is it that Americans and Europeans have such different attitudes to the problem of diving? In America, flopping in basketball isn’t approved of by any means, but it’s more or less grudgingly tolerated; the sight of a player flinging himself to the ground in order to win a call is as likely to provoke a kind of annoyed amusement as it is outrage. In Europe, and especially in England, diving in soccer doesn’t have this buffer of tolerance; it’s simply seen as the most hateful aspect of the game. A dive, or merely a perceived dive, generates enormous controversy, fills headlines, ruins reputations. (We’ve seen it happen just this week with Cristiano Ronaldo against Bolton.) And yet it’s soccer, not basketball, that seems to have the greater problem with simulation.

Obviously, there are some structural reasons why this should be the case. A goal from a penalty is worth so much more to a team than two free throws in basketball that the cases can’t really be compared on equal terms. A dive in soccer is incalculably more likely to be the turning point of a match. But even in situations where a flop in basketball comes at a crucial moment, it seldom generates anything like the angry judgment that routinely accompanies any dive in soccer. Here’s a hugely high-stakes dive by Raja Bell in the waning moments of the fourth quarter in Game 5 of the Suns-Spurs playoff series last year. Listen to the way the announcers describe it: they’re not happy about it, but they’re not upset, either. There’s even a kind of despite-ourselves appreciation of the way Bell pulled it off (“…Ginobili and Bell, two of the best floppers in the league”).

Compare that with the commentator’s reaction to Alberto Gilardino’s classic dive in Milan’s Champions League match against Celtic last year. It is not, in any way, appreciative. (“Fully deserves censure, if not ridicule…disgraceful.”)

So while the structural differences between the sports are clearly the largest reason for the disparity in their fans’ attitudes toward simulation, I do think there’s a deeper cultural element at work here. And if my theory is right, it’s an instructive one, because the American acceptance of competitiveness as a pseudo-virtue has enabled us to make peace with a moderate degree of cheating in sports—the most important thing is winning the game, and if that end can be achieved by manipulating the referee, then not to manipulate him would almost be irresponsible. By the same token, Argentines consider craftiness and trickery to be a semi-legitimate part of playing the game, and in South America committing hard fouls is often felt to be more deplorable than diving. The same even applies, to a lesser extent, to European nations like Portugal, Spain, and Italy. But in the rest of Europe—and again, especially in England—none of those mediating pseudo-virtues has gained much currency, and winning within the rules, by legitimate skill alone, is still seen as the only admirable course.

Sentimentally, I admire the European attitude here, and would love to see fair play take a more prominent place in sports. But practically, I think the American attitude is more sane. Players aren’t moral paragons, most of them, but people whose jobs depend on their producing specific results; they have every motivation in the world to try to gain any advantage they can find. It’s in their best interest to be ruthless, and while opprobrium from fans can curb the worst excesses (the reform of Didier Drogba has been one of the best things to see in sports over the last year or so) it can only do so much. The only way to eliminate diving will be to tie it to some significant disadvantage within the game, something far worse than the slight risk of a yellow card for simulation. Until that happens, the players will continue to do whatever they can to win, and it’s left to us to see them for what they are. And then figure out how to accept it.


Going to Ground in America and Europe

by Brian Phillips · December 5, 2007

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