‘I’m probably the wrong man to ask, I like a little dive myself.”
Damien Duff was sitting a few feet away from me in a TV studio in 2014 when he said that. It was his debut as a TV pundit and Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle had flung himself to the ground in the PSG box. I solicited some righteous indignation from Duffer: Maybe something about diving being a scourge on our great game? Even a mild Down With That Sort Of Thing?
Instead Duffer, still playing and unschooled in the Jesuitical language of sports punditry, told the truth. I like a little dive. A shrug of the shoulders. So what?
The revelation was shocking. Not that a professional footballer liked, on occasion, if the opportunity presented itself and if he thought he could get away with it, to dive. That much was blatantly obvious to anyone who even watched the odd game.
The shock was in someone admitting it.
I thought of Duffer when Pep Guardiola called Sadio Mane a diver the other day. Managerial press conference spats belong in the milieu of the playground, with the media ferrying “did you hear what he said about you?” shade back and forth between parties in the hope that they will end up metaphorically scuffling behind the bike sheds at lunchtime.
Pep calling Mane a diver was primo schoolyard junk. It has dominated the chatter in the build-up to Sunday’s mega-massive Premier League apocalypto clash between Liverpool and Manchester City. Guardiola has had to climb down since. Too much. In the code of football insults, being called a diver is about as bad as you can get without entering the realm of El Hadji Diouf.
But why is this so? Five years on from Duffer’s frank revelation and several gazillion blatantly obvious dives later, why does football still pretend that diving is taboo when lots of players clearly, in the words of our own blue-eyed boy from Ballyboden, like a little dive?
According to historical record, diving was brought to game in these islands in the early 1990s by a fellow called Johnny Foreigner, a swarthy, journeyman striker of unspecified Latin origin, whose corrupting influence soon infected the pure Anglo-Saxon-Celtic gene pool.
Honest, rugged physicality was replaced by deceit and chicanery. Manly exchanges of boot and elbow were undermined by play-acting and subterfuge.
New phrases came in: Making a meal of it, swan dive, give him an Oscar.
Fans of more muscular sports scoffed at football with its nancy boys and girls’ blouses throwing themselves about. Rugby in particular, flagons of ale aloft and arse stuffed with flaming toilet paper, guffawed its derision.
Football wasn’t too happy about it either, but quietly adopted Johnny’s methods. The language softened for all but the most outré simulation. He went down a little easy. There was contact. A leg was dangled. The referee had a decision to make.
Jurgen Klinsmann made a joke of it by incorporating a dive into his goal celebration. We laughed. This was the 1990s, it was very post-modern, very TFI Friday.
Michael Owen won penalties for England in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups with dives. But he was playing for England and both were against Argentina, so that was okay. The morality became murkier, diluted by partisanship. We didn’t mind if Duffer or Robbie Keane hit the deck a little easy for Ireland. Had to be done.
The ability to skilfully parlay ‘contact’ into free-kicks and penalties became part of the forward’s professional armoury. Attackers were expected to paint a picture for a referee.
There was no right or wrong here, just the cold, rational imperative of winning. If you didn’t do it, why not?
Sure, there was token hostility to the most outrageous thespians, but nothing too serious. Ashley Young was one such player accused of taking to the air in dubious circumstances. But he went on to play for England at the World Cup and captain Manchester United.
Neymar was ridiculed for his elaborate Simone Biles floor routines, but he’s still so sought after that Barcelona players apparently wanted to defer their wages so the club could afford to sign him.
And VAR has been a diver’s charter. While theoretically eliminating the worst case, it has also incentivised strikers to go down upon the slightest brush with an opponent’s leg, safe in the knowledge most VAR officials will spot the magical ‘contact.’
This is what happened in the cases involving Mane to which Guardiola was likely referring, from the recent games against Leicester and Tottenham.
So, if diving — or whatever euphemism you want to use for the act of hitting the ground when you could stay up — is so ingrained in the game, why is it still considered a slur? Why didn’t Duffer’s honesty break the dam of hypocrisy?
It’s understandable that Mane might be reluctant to admit he takes the occasional fall, lest he spoil it for himself the next time he tries it, but why does someone like Guardiola bother to comment on it?
I suspect there is something deeper going on here, something about the childish innocence buried deep within even the most cynical professional.
That, perhaps, in every pursuit of ‘contact’ there is a tiny degradation of the soul, a sadness in the eyes of every striker who looks up from the ground hoping to see the referee with whistle in mouth and wonders what became of the boy who just wanted to play the game.
“Screw that boy, he’s a loser,” his celebrating team-mates seem to suggest.
The opponent who dives allows you to reclaim that state of perfect moral purity for a few moments — Cheat!— until you slip back down into the slime when one of your own does it, never able to truly bring yourself to share Duffer’s admirable honesty that, let’s face it, we all like a little dive now and then.