Gareth Bale could be excused for feeling just a little aggrieved tomorrow when he sits on the sidelines as Tottenham Hotspur host Reading. The Welshman is suspended having picked up his fifth yellow card of the season – all for diving.
As Bale pointed out after his latest caution against Sunderland on Saturday, referees must look closer. The Welshman was clearly impeded by the arm of Craig Gardner, and so went tumbling to the floor. The great diving debate was reignited.
Referees have to get a grip on this issue. It is not just about diving. It is about honesty. The whole furore caused by diving is because it is seen as fundamentally dishonest. But whilst there is something wholly unedifying about a player taking a tumble under no pressure in an attempt to cheat the referee, this is not a unique act of dishonesty on the football field. Is it any less honest to dive than to do as Gardner did? That is foul an opponent, and then watch as the referee cautions him for diving, knowing full well that there was contact? It is an equal act of dishonesty. Whereas diving is a pre-meditated attempt to cheat, being happy to take advantage of refereeing injustice is an instinctive reaction. But both are equally dishonest. The only difference is one is planned, the other instinctive.
That is why Bale has every right to be angry. Much is made of diving. Less is made of the other numerous ways in which teams attempt to cheat. Goalkeepers frequently take too long to take goal kicks. Players always appeal for throw ins that they know are not theirs. There is constant shirt pulling in the penalty area. Too often players throw themselves into dangerous two footed tackles, reckless challenges outlawed by FIFA. And there is one of the most brazen forms of cheating in the modern game, where at a set piece an attacking player will deliberately foul an opponent to open up space for a team mate to take advantage of, as Stoke City did to West Ham earlier this season at Upton Park.
And this is not a dig just at Stoke and the league’s less glamorous names. Two weeks ago my own team, who compete towards the top of the table, were hanging on in a game in which they were being outplayed, and started to time waste just as brazenly as teams we often deride for exactly the same behaviour. That was cheating too. And it was wrong. The goalkeeper should have been punished with a booking. If he did the same thing again he should have received a second yellow card and a red.
All are attempts to gain an advantage outside of the rules of the game. Why diving is elevated to an evil above all other forms of cheating is a mystery. What is worse, as the case of Bale shows, it is often the more skillful and entertaining players who end up penalised by this. There is something sadly ironic about the fact that creative attacking players tend to get penalised for dishonesty and cheating above all others. It is time the authorities and the football community alike grappled with the real issue. Diving is not a unique evil in the game today. Cheating is wrong, full stop – in all its forms.