Yesterday during Man Utd vs Liverpool, a player went down, no foul was given and for the 38,725th time this season someone said/wrote ‘If it’s not a foul, why didn’t the ref book him for diving?’ In this case, the culprit was Paolo Bandini on one of the Guardian’s ever-readable minute-by-minute text commentaries (so much better than the BBC’s, whose attempts at humour often fall terribly flat – Caroline Cheese is their only good writer, and even she’s not up to the standard of Barry Glendenning or the peerless Scott Murray). I don’t want to single Bandini out here, even though I kind of just have: it’s something that everyone seems to say all the time, and may possibly even enter the lexicon of football commentary cliché.
Welcome as it would be to have new football commentary clichés, as they would slightly dilute the pool of existing ones, can I point out that football players sometimes just fall over? Look at Emile Heskey: he falls over all the time, he doesn’t even need anyone to be near him. It therefore follows that, in a challenge, there might be contact and the player might go over but the ref could still conclude that it was fair contact and didn’t cause the fall. Players often stumble during challenges because there’s more pressure and more to focus on. The player may feel he’s been fouled, he may appeal, he may even have exaggerated the fall – but, being involved in the game, he’s not entirely objective, is he.
Objectivity seems to be at the root of the mentality which says the referee must penalise one player or the other: the idea that one side must be right and the referee should know which it is. However, fouling and diving are the two aspects of the game which can be highly subjective. Sometimes the right decision is obvious, as when a challenge is studs-up or an attacker clearly goes down without being touched, but often the referee’s job is to judge the defender’s intent and the attacker’s honesty. And he’s not a mind-reader, and even if the attacker isn’t actively trying to con him, that might mean the defender is.
It’s always going to be hard to be certain and if the ref’s not sure exactly what he’s just seen, he should err on the side of caution and not penalise either team. I sympathise to an extent with the ‘foul or dive’ lobby, because most of us would like to see diving punished more often – but it is one of the hardest things in football to punish accurately, and I’ve seen strikers booked for being fouled. Essentially, demanding a free kick or booking in every such situation amounts to demanding the establishment of an objective reality where everyone’s view of an incident concurs. Or for referees to make a lot more mistakes than they do already.