Erik Lamela’s theatrical reaction to Anthony Martial’s flick to his face in the Tottenham-Manchester United game in October provides a useful case study for the problems with diving and exaggeration in football.
Graeme Souness described Lamela’s display as ‘very Latin’ – a remark for which he was later accused of xenophobic stereotyping. However, I believe that Souness was merely trying to imply that Lamela’s behaviour was unmanly and not typical of players back in his era.
In Souness’ day, there were far fewer international players in the English game, with the influx of South Americans and Africans in the modern-day Premier League being a more recent development. Therefore, Souness’ belief that diving is not a part of English football’s culture stems from the fact that, in his day, back when good honest violence was more acceptable than slyness, there were far more British players in the league.
To Lamela, his operatic, delayed fall was a justified tactic, a viable route to winning a game of football, whereas Souness considered it to be a shameful act. This may have once simply represented a mark of different footballing cultures, with Souness correct to note that South American football, which is known for its flamboyance and expression, was where diving used to be more common.
However, in the modern game, nearly all players dive and exaggerate in order to gain an advantage, regardless of their footballing background. It’s more a question of which era of football you are associated with than where you come from. As a result, Souness’s criticism is simply unfair and outdated.
But is diving as much of a sin as is suggested?
The most mocked and known ‘diver’ in European football is the world record transfer fee holder, Neymar.
To the scornful amusement of many, it was estimated he Brazilian spent 14 minutes on the floor in the 2018 World Cup. What we fail to acknowledge is the reason: because of his exceptional talent.
Neymar was on the receiving end of a foul every 22 minutes, a league high in the 19/20 season, and he is yet to complete a season at PSG without suffering a season-ending injury which we can put down to the many fouls committed against him in each campaign.
Diving or exaggeration is a form of communication, a way for Neymar to let the referee know that he is being targeted. Because of our twisted sense of masculinity, strength and integrity in football, we critique the person being hurt instead of critiquing the players who regularly foul him.
There are different types of diving: there’s exaggeration of a slight contact and there is complete play-acting when no contact between attacker and defender has been made. VAR has more or less eradicated the latter but fuelled the former, especially in the penalty area, as attackers know that this will lead to the challenge made on them being analysed to the fullest extent and perhaps winning them a penalty (43 penalties so far this season is disproportionately high).
Even with VAR, it can be incredibly difficult to measure the force, intensity and intention behind a touch or tackle, leading to many players believing that they might get lucky off of the most minimal amount of contact. Indeed, slow motion replays can often make a challenge look far worse than it was in reality.
It’s true that Lamela’s reaction was severely out of proportion to Martial’s act, but the fact that Martial almost certainly wouldn’t have been sent off if it wasn’t for Lamela’s reaction highlights why players dive.
Almost every reaction to a real foul is exaggerated, not because players nowadays are frail and unmanly, but because they won’t be given a foul if they don’t overreact.
As long as referees keep awarding fouls based on reactions rather than actions, both real and pretended fouls will be signalled with theatrics.