Why Soccer Players Dive (and why you would too, if you were Arjen Robben)

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In the 92nd minute of a Round of 16 match against Mexico, Dutch winger Arjen Robben streaked down the right flank, blowing past a shell-shocked Diego Reyes before scampering into the penalty area near the touchline.

Every person in the Estadio Castelao knew what was going to happen next: Robben would cut to his left. Robben has an ineffable, inexorable quality that makes his play simultaneously predictable and inevitable. Hoary old Rafa Marquez could see Arjen Robben’s next move, even though he was powerless to stop it.

Instead, he clipped the spritely Dutchman, who spread his arms and launched into a balletic swan dive. As Robben crashed to the ground, so did El Tri’s hopes and dreams: Klass-Jan Huntelaar’s successful penalty kick sealed their fate.

The reactions to Robben’s theatrics range from cynical amusement to impotent indignation, but they mostly hinge on the idea that he dove and that diving is underhanded, devious, and conniving, an unseemly bit of gamesmanship that suggests a disregard for fairness and a lack of moral fiber.

Fortunately, they’re wrong.

Why diving isn’t always wrong

Diving’s permutations and facets contain multitudes. To dive, depending on who you ask, is:

1. To create a challenge out of whole cloth, to fall to the ground after no contact at all.
2. To fall to the ground after minimal contact (defined usually as “not enough to knock a grown-ass man down).
3. To feign injury or exaggerate the force of a challenge in an attempt to get an opposing player booked with a yellow or red card.

The first and third scenarios are deceptive, and the third is particularly malicious—no arguments there. The second, however, is the fertile ground for discontent and the gnashing of teeth.

FIFA’s quirky rules are partly to blame for diving. According to the official Laws of the Game, the following are a foul if done recklessly, carelessly, or with excessive force: kicking, tripping, striking, or attempting to kick, trip, or strike an opponent.

It is with these rules in mind that English coach, pundit, and former player Gary Neville explains that a foul and a dive can happen simultaneously. Describing a Mark Davis dive in a match against Wolverhampton, Neville puts a succinct, Socratic bow on diving: “Penalty? Yes. Dive? Yes!” In a game in which attempting to foul someone is in itself a foul, even minimal contact is technically illegal.

And yet, while the Laws’ nitpickiness squares away Robben’s behavior, they also make their own enforcement impossible as a practical matter. With 22 adrenaline-buffed players on the field, there are any number of shirt tugs, ankle-kicks, wayward elbows, well-timed headbutts, testicle slaps, and, yes, bites, that go unseen and unpunished.

Earlier this month Bobby Warshaw, a defensive midfielder formerly of FC Dallas and currently playing in Sweden’s second division, waxed poetic about Kyle Beckerman’s fouling ability. He admired the subtlety and discretion with which Beckerman “nicks your leg so it looks as if you’d gotten tangled, or he falls over into your back so it looks like an accident.” My own high school coaches taught us that tugging on opposing players’ shorts during corners and free kicks was effective.

Most discussions of diving attempt to justify the behavior. Moral gymnasts might point out that Robben had been obviously fouled in the box in the first half, and thus his dive (and subsequent penalty) was a restorative act of balance. Others note that Miguel Herrera, the human .gif engine that is Mexico’s coach, played the second half of the game too defensively, inviting the Elftal’s relentless attack—Robben’s dive was simply the mechanism by which the inevitable was executed. In the above video, Gary Neville explains that sloppy defending (what he calls “lazy legs”) invites attacking players to dive, putting the onus on Rafa Marquez to play cleanly and unambiguously.

Occam’s Razor, however, suggests that maybe forwards just get fouled a lot.

The granularity of the Laws of the Game have created a situation in which a dive represents a forward’s only recourse for legitimate grievances in a hostile, unjust, and barely-governable game. In other words, as soon as Marquez kicked Robben, the referee was right to award the Oranje a penalty kick.

Robben’s dive, then, was irrelevant, except as a way to signal that a foul had actually occurred. It’s less that Rafa Marquez’ trepidatious challenge actually sent Robben flying and more that Robben knows what it takes to get a referee’s attention. It’s not cheating so much as it’s communication.

Diving as a form of communication

Soccer has its own language. In English, this often means importing terms from Europe (catenaccio, trequartista, roulette) or Central and South America (la plancha)—even otherwise benign terms (“a number 9”) have soccer-specific meanings. Unsurprisingly, the World’s Game has a non-verbal dictionary, too.

Any given Premiership game might be played by Frenchmen, Mexicans, Cameroonians, Hondurans, Russians, Salvadorans, Germans, Serbians, Englishmen, and Senegalese. The incredulous finger waves (“No, sir, that was not a foul.”) and arm-raising (“Sir, that was clearly a foul”) are always the same and always clearly understood.

There is another part of soccer’s physical grammar, though, that players learn at a young age: a player on the ground signifies an injury, and play should be stopped. Going to the ground is a proactive act, a wordless plea to the referee.

Diving too then is communicative, working with the same morphemes an injured player might use to stop play: if I am on the ground, it’s because there is an issue that must be resolved.

This World Cup has seen headbutts in at least two different group stage games: Spanish striker Diego Costa grazed Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi, while Portuguese enforcer Pepe gave German Wundermittelfeldspieler Thomas Müller a love tap. In both cases, the wounded party acted, shall we say, overdramatically, but the referee dispensed punishment—a stern talking-to for Costa and a straight red card for Pepe. These are the rules working as intended.

Most dives—or at least the most-talked about—happen like Arjen Robben’s: late, in tie games. This is the most advantageous time to dive, of course, but it’s also when strikers, forwards, attacking half-backs, and wingers are at their most exasperated, having been fouled, mugged, kicked, tripped, and elbowed for an hour and a half with no whistle and no recourse.

When the specificity of a set of rules makes them impossible to administer, the dive is a player’s last avenue for justice, an anguished cry in supplication. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Unnoticed—or worse, uncalled—fouls erode at the fabric of a soccer game, but a dive is an appeal to fairness, logic, and justice. It pierces the chaos of a game for a moment of order and retribution, calling attention to the latest in a series of overlooked wrongs that must be righted. Even an unsuccessful dive has its place, forcing the referee’s hand and, thereby, a decision: “I will not be ignored this time,” a diver says.

That’s not to say that diving should be a celebrated part of soccer, or that referees should call every tetchy contact foul. Combined with the fallibility of a referee’s perception, the Laws of the Game prove hilariously inadequate to address all but the most egregious fouls, and that is one of soccer’s most unpredictable, and therefore endearing, quirks.

That said, classifying the occasional and well-earned dive as cheating is to miss the forest for the trees, who have just tackled you with their studs up.

We look to sports for the things that seem unachievable in life: drama and beauty, the ecstasy and the agony of triumph and failure. We look for transgressions to be punished and for hard work, diligence, and perseverance to be rewarded. Arjen Robben has been maligned as a diver, and therefore a sneak and a cheat. On the contrary, though: he just wants everyone to follow the rules, as do we all.

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