The madness of the war on diving



Mark Clattenburg is a moron. In the 68th minute of Sunday's top-of-the-table clash at Stamford Bridge, Fernando Torres went over the top of the extended boot of Johnny Evans, plummeted to the floor, and writhed around for a few moments. Hearing the whistle we were all expecting, he righted himself onto his knees to discover that, in fact, it was him who was being penalised. For diving, of all things!

The referee, a mister Clattenburg from County Durham, took one look at the situation and decided there'd been no contact at all. One look! One! He didn't pause the game, and check all five camera angles to find the telltale tremors in the Spaniard's sock that showed he'd been nicked on his way over. To make matters worse, when Javier Hernandez converted the winning goal, he didn't freeze time and drag an imaginary offside line across the six yard box to see if it should have been allowed.

At least once a season now, we're told that managers, players, officials, governing bodies, or whoever, have finally commenced a war on diving. But what weapons do these valiant souls have to smite their cunning nemesis? Is it a severe rule changes? Lengthy bans for offenders? Perhaps a special turf that opens a bottomless pit of shame for these headed toward the grass unassisted? No, this is a battle fought exclusively with puffed-out red cheeks, shaking fists, and people on radio phone-ins using the word “disgrace” eight times in a single sentence.

The only real weapon in this never-ending bun fight is this: a referee who spots a player attempting to gain an advantage by simulation contact from another player is allowed to award the foul the other way and give him a yellow card for his troubles. That's the equivalent of pulling out a TV remote in a pistol duel, or cowering under a cocktail umbrella in the middle of some carpet bombing.

We're slowly coming around to the idea that maybe, after a solid few decades of the game moving faster and being decided by smaller and smaller margins, that one man running around after it all with a whistle can't possibly get every decision right in real time. We reluctantly forgive them for missing goalline decisions, off the ball incidents, and people hurling unsavoury things at one another, so is it so daft to bring diving into this as well? It's not like being fouled and being given a free-kick always go skipping hand-in-hand through a scenic meadow anyway.

But even if referees remain the only footsoldiers, the main problem they're going to have is this: Nobody actually knows what a 'dive' is...

If a player is having his shirt pulled but doesn't think the whistle is coming, is it a dive if he falls over? If a player sees an opponent steaming toward him faster than a wasp with a bullet up its rear, jumps to avoid the contact and lands, untouched, on his face, is that a dive? If a defender is shepherding the ball out of play and, feeling an attacker foolishly put a hand in his back, tumbles over, is that a dive?

Johnny Evans threw himself towards Fernando Torres and didn't win the ball. Is it only a foul if he caught him on the way over? Mark Clattenburg was hammered by fans for the Torres sending off because there “was some contact”. If he'd have given the free-kick the other way and it had led to a goal, he'd have been hammered because there “wasn't much contact”. Damned if he does, and awkwardly photoshopped into a Man United shirt if he doesn't.

Football is, despite what Robbie Savage will tell you, still a contact sport, and the area between what is and isn't enough to force a player to go to ground is greyer than bus full of greyhounds. That's without even opening the basket of eye-rolling, head in hands stupidity that implies it's just something cheating foreigners like Phil Neville do.

We're all demanding the expulsion of something from our game that none of us can accurately define and, worse still, leaving it all for one man in the middle of the pitch to deal with. Tonight's post match analysis took all the space-aged wizardry of the Sky studio to pick apart, and it was still a subjective issue. Referees might well be men in black, but they cannot be expected to be our first, last, and only line of defence here.