The div­ing witch-hunt strikes again

World Soccer - - The World - Paul GARD­NER

This ram­shackle clam­p­down pro­ce­dure has its lim­its. Those lim­its are left way be­hind by the Premier League’s per­sis­tent cam­paign against “sim­u­la­tion” or div­ing

We’re all pretty ac­cus­tomed to foot­ball clam­p­downs by now. As a new sea­son starts, or a World Cup rolls around, the league au­thor­i­ties or FIFA tell us that ref­er­ees have been in­structed to keep an eye out for, and to sternly pun­ish, some spe­cific of­fence. These have ranged from im­por­tant things like tack­ling from be­hind and sur­round­ing ref­er­ees, to more triv­ial mat­ters such as mak­ing sure play­ers tuck their shirts in.

At the start of a new sea­son the clam­p­down is ap­plied vig­or­ously. Half­way through, the ini­tial zeal of the ref­er­ees slack­ens – pos­si­bly be­cause the clam­p­down is work­ing – and by the end of the sea­son it has been for­got­ten.

My feel­ing is that most clam­p­downs are jus­ti­fied, that they re­spond to a gen­eral feel­ing that some par­tic­u­lar as­pect of the sport is get­ting out of hand and needs to be reined in. But as is usual with any­thing in­volv­ing ref­er­ee­ing or the rules, the ac­tion is al­ways de­layed and the clam­p­downs ar­rive a year or two later than they should do.

How­ever, my gen­er­ally be­nign ac­cep­tance of this ram­shackle clam­p­down pro­ce­dure has its lim­its. Those lim­its are left way be­hind by the Premier League’s per­sis­tent cam­paign against “sim­u­la­tion” or div­ing. The lat­est ver­sion of this cam­paign en­tails the post-game study of videos and the un­earthing of dives that the ref­eree missed and the sus­pen­sion of the cul­prits.

As this zero-tol­er­ance cam­paign goes on, it would be use­ful to know just how preva­lent div­ing is in the Premier League. Is this an ev­erygame oc­cur­rence? Or maybe once every 10 games? We don’t know as the nec­es­sary sta­tis­tics don’t ex­ist. None­the­less, a full-scale cam­paign is un­der­way with­out any solid proof that it is needed.

Look­ing at the of­fence it­self, it is not a phys­i­cal of­fence. No op­po­nent is go­ing to be in­jured, it in­volves only de­cep­tion. This is con­demned as cheat­ing, which im­me­di­ately moves the of­fence into a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory. It is now seen as morally wrong. En­ter the moral­ists, with their pu­ri­tan­i­cal in­tol­er­ance.

Now the clam­p­down turns ugly and be­comes a witch-hunt.

Witch-hunts are un­pleas­ant pro­ce­dures. The blind fer­vour with which they are con­ducted leads

in­evitably to gross er­rors and the con­dem­na­tion of in­no­cents. At its worst, a witch-hunt be­comes less in­ter­ested in stamp­ing out the sup­posed crime than in pun­ish­ing the sin­ners al­leged to have com­mit­ted it.

For the tra­di­tional, early-Au­gust cur­tain-raiser to the English sea­son, Bobby Madley was put in charge of the Com­mu­nity Shield game be­tween Ar­se­nal and Chelsea at Wem­b­ley. He is one of Eng­land’s top refs, so his duty was to set the ref­er­ee­ing model for the up­com­ing sea­son.

Pity about that, for Madley made a right royal mess of things.

Given the witch-hunt, it was al­ways likely that Madley would be look­ing for dives – and he found one in the 38th minute, duly yel­low-card­ing Chelsea’s Wil­lian. But the call was hor­ren­dously wrong.

Re­plays showed that Wil­lian was tripped by Ar­se­nal’s Hector Bel­lerin, a slight con­tact that knocked Wil­lian’s mov­ing leg against the back of his stand­ing leg.

Chelsea should have had a penalty, but the main con­cern is not the score­line but the sheer ar­ro­gance of Madley’s call – a po­ten­tially game-chang­ing call that flew in the face of what ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

So the in­no­cent Wil­lian was tarred as a sin­ner. And Madley, who wrongly con­demned him? Noth­ing has hap­pened to him. Barely a word of crit­i­cism has been heard.

Yes, of course, div­ing must be pun­ished – but it must not be viewed as a uniquely heinous moral crime that has to be elim­i­nated at all costs.

That way lies the odi­ous witch­hunt, and foot­ball should not be stoop­ing that low.

Fall guy...Chelsea’s Wil­lian (in blue) is clipped by Hector Bel­lerin of Ar­se­nal

In the spot­light...ref­eree Bobby Madley

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