Why diving is bad

I must be old.

The kids today, or the ones on my twitter feed, keep going on about this thing they love. It’s ‘diving’. I’d only just learnt why people like TikTok.

I suspect that there’s some kickback against older generations in their appreciation of it. The moans about ‘simulation’ do get a little wearying, and so it’s somewhat unsurprising that there’s some teenage-esque rebellion going on. ‘What even is a foul anyway’, the kids will ask in postmodernist disparagement. And ‘isn’t your disdain for diving simply built on societal expectations of masculinity, which dictates that the ‘proper’ way to be a man is to ignore all pain? Is this the hill upon which you wish to die?’.

TikTok sounds more fun than this. They’re creating a whole Ratatouille musical over there.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about another much-scrutinised area of on-pitch footballing morals: why defenders should be (at least partially) excused for clattering forwards after they take a shot. I say that to establish, or acknowledge, my credentials as a defender of traditional British attitudes to things in football. With that in mind, allow me to give my case for why diving is Bad.

First thing’s first: there’s more than one kind of dive. We all know this to be true, and it’s unhelpful to talk about diving without acknowledging this.

Because of the current preferred nature of football, referees will tend to allow play to go on as long as players are on their feet. Even if an advantage isn’t signalled, this is essentially what’s happening when a player is tripped near the box but manage to stay on their feet and keep the ball. In these situations, I think that officials regard the possibility of play ongoing as ‘advantage’. Crucially, although slightly tangentially, I think that the word ‘advantage’ is possibly a bit misleading: play can reasonably continue, so therefore it shall.

Now, if referees will always insist that play goes on even if an individual is being somewhat impeded, going to ground forces the official’s hand. With the impeded player on the floor, play can’t reasonably continue (unless the referee decides that actually they weren’t sufficiently impeded for it to be a foul). This is Dive Type 1.

Another type of dive is much easier to describe, partly because it’s one that’s already been discussed for several years. If a heavy challenge is coming towards a player, they will sometimes dive in order to get out of the way and avoid the potential for injury. Dive Type 2.

Then there’s a third type of dive, which is, broadly speaking, just deception. Blatant dives are in here, but so too, along the spectrum, is ‘winning a foul’* and overly-dramatic reactions to things that may already have been called as fouls. *(e.g. leaving a leg in front of a challenge, stopping suddenly to force a defender to clatter into you). Dive Type 3.

There are grey areas and spectrums between all of these. A player might feel they’re being impeded and go down, but might do so in a slightly unnatural and theatric way because they have to force the referee to realise they’re being impeded: is this an example of Dive Type 1 or Dive Type 3?

Dive Type 2 — the injury preventor — gets even more tangled in hypotheticals. It’s become quite common for players to dribble the ball almost into the path of a tackle, only to poke the ball away at the last moment. Often, this poke will take the ball far away from where they possibly could have collected it. Here we sometimes get a Diver’s Paradox.

The challenge coming in is impeding them, but if they skipped over it and landed on their feet it wouldn’t be called as a foul (see Dive Type 1) and they also wouldn’t regain the ball. But the impediment of the challenge that they’ve skipped over is only an impediment because they’ve poked the ball so far away in an uncontrolled manner — had they tried to keep the ball under their control, they may well have been tackled. The challenge is only a foul because the forward has poked the ball irretrievably far away; but the forward has a severely reduced chance of getting the ball because of the challenge.

In fact, put like that, some of these ‘injury preventing’ dives are a case of ‘winning a foul’. They entice an opponent in for a challenge that the attacker themselves makes dangerous by moving the ball away and moving their own body into the path of the challenge.

All of this is to say that diving is an area filled with different motives, not to mention different levels of impediment (a lightly tugged shirt vs a full-bodied whack on the ankle). It’s difficult. But diving does exist.

The difficulty diving creates is the most uncontentious reason why diving is bad: it makes life almost impossible for referees. The way that football is played is already so steeped in grey area that the shadows that diving casts can make things impossibly murky.

Things usually work themselves out, partly because decisions in most areas of the pitch don’t matter much. However, if the baseline expectation is that anyone will go to ground once they reach the box, it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on. Once people start diving, referees have to contend with everything in the previous section, which is a lot more philosophy than I want an official to be considering on the pitch.

There may be some arguments that other types of fouling make things difficult for referees too. Dissent is the clearest one that springs to mind, but I think the dynamics are meaningfully different. With dissent, a referee’s authority to control a match is challenged quite simply; with diving, the diver is forcing the referee to call them a liar. I would suggest that this is far harder to deal with.

That brings me onto the main reason why I think Diving Is Bad: dishonesty. Now, the kids may roll their eyes at me and say ‘Old Man, what a square dweeb you are, thinking that honesty is still something to value’ but, call me a boomer, I think it is.

Diving is inherently dishonest. As discussed, there’s a lot of grey area, and players are only making semi-conscious decisions, but it is what it is. Most other types of fouling are not dishonest: as much as I dislike tactical fouls for being lazy and breaking the flow of the game, they’re not exactly hiding what they are.

Sometimes when people talk about diving they talk about other types of fouling where people try and ‘get away with it’ outside the referee’s sight (e.g. pulling shirts at set-pieces). I don’t think that this is honesty per se, or at least not in the same way: you’re not trying to deceive anybody, you’re just trying to foul when the authorities aren’t looking.

However, there is some other dishonesty around in the game. Players appealing for a throw-in when the ball goes out off their own body is an oft-cited example. This is true, although I think that there are a few reasons why this doesn’t provoke the same anger as diving:

  1. They’re throw-ins. Outside of Thomas Gronnemark, nobody really cares about them
  2. For that very reason, you’re very unlikely to actively want to deceive a referee into winning a throw compared to, say, winning a penalty
  3. Also, any deception invariably comes after the decision has already been made, rather than causing the decision in the first place (this is also the case about players protesting about not having fouled someone when they clearly have). In other words, a lie about not pulling a shirt is even more meaningless than a lie to try and win a throw-in. A lie to win a penalty is immensely more meaningful.
  4. I also think that there’s often a hope in these appeals, not simply that the decision goes their way, but that reality is actually in their favour. For handball appeals, for example, I expect many players appeal because their teammate is or after having seen the incident from a bad angle. This is getting a little deep, even for me, but in these moments I think sometimes players are appealing more to the universe than the referee, which isn’t exactly deception

Having said all of this, I do think it’s worth considering the other reasons why diving, in English football culture, is disliked, reasons which I don’t think are valid.

There’s the masculinity one, which I alluded to earlier. I think that this is part of some peoples’ response, although I wonder how much of it could be made much less problematic if the phrase “man up” was replaced by “grow up”.

Play-acting, which diving sometimes is, could quite reasonably be considered childish, and I would assume that people who dislike diving for this reason would have a similar reaction to female footballers diving. If they do, does that mean they hold up women’s football as a showcase/embodiment of masculine values too? Maybe disliking diving because “it’s not how men act” is (sometimes) more complicated than simple gender expectations.

I think that there’s also the ‘foreign’ aspect of diving that contributes to the dislike. By this, I don’t mean that it goes against some kind of ingrained British/English values, but just that it’s ‘not what we do around here’. A good example of what I mean by this separation is waving imaginary cards.

We seem to have a particular dislike for players or managers waving for a booking in England, but it strikes me that this is just another way of dissenting. Perhaps it seems slightly more explicitly presumptive than ‘English dissent’ — i.e. shouting expletives — but in its essence I think it’s the same. It’s pushing the referee to do their job differently (often genuinely as a frustration release valve, sometimes merely under the guise of it). Dissent is not ‘un-British/un-English’, but waving a card is ‘not what we do around here’.

Similarly, while I have some fundamental objections to diving, its unfamiliarity in the British/English game is undoubtedly a factor in some peoples’ dislike for it. It’s likely a factor in mine too, although I do think that I’ve illustrated justifiable reasons for disliking it.

Finally, I wonder if there’s something about diving that feels like a cheat code. Dislike for diving might, in part, stem from a fear that it’ll overtake the sport and football will become about who can get near the box and fall over the best. I don’t know how well-founded this is, and feel like I don’t have the knowledge of football history to gauge whether the game is going that way, but this may be a factor in diving’s unpopularity.

This topic is, you may be able to tell, something I’ve thought quite a bit about. Perhaps too much. While I imagine many people may disagree with parts of my opinion or reasoning, I think some things here are undeniable and should form the base for all future discussions about diving:

  • There are different types of dive, of varying forms of legitimacy
  • Diving makes refereeing more difficult, for obvious ‘muddying the waters’ reasons
  • Diving is a deception, although I expect a lot of disagreement over how much deception there is elsewhere in the game and how much this matters

Different people will have different feelings and values that they put on certain things within the game. Even though this is my view on diving and why it rubs me up the wrong way, I don’t think that it is necessarily wrong for someone else to see it differently. It just isn’t how I view the sport — diving is bad, to me.

This has partly been a rebuttal to my Twitter timeline, which I expect is far more receptive to diving than the norm. However, I think this is a worthwhile exercise regardless. It helped me organise some thoughts, will hopefully help others, and at the very least means they’re all in one place when the next incident and debate inevitably comes along.

Now I can just link this piece every time, rather than trying to fit it into a tweet to aim at the kids on my timeline…