Diving for gain makes a mockery of our sense of fair play, writes Nirmal Shekar

To call it acting would be an insult to the genius of a long line of stage and motion picture actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, men whose virtuoso artistic skills we have enjoyed and celebrated.

This is precisely why the act of diving to win free kicks, or more insidiously, penalties, should not be termed acting. It is a cowardly and egregious act that constitutes unethical conduct. Such conduct has no place in football, least of all at its quadrennial showpiece event, the World Cup.

Diving may be as old as football itself; what is not of such vintage is modern technology. The presence of so many cameras and the slow motion replays that are available for viewing and reviewing, unheard of in the days of Pele’s first World Cup — in Sweden in 1958 — means that the cheats have nowhere to hide, no matter how often they might have successfully convinced the on-field referee that they have been wronged.

Worst crime

Taking a tumble in an attempt to win a penalty is the worst crime that an unarmed footballer can commit on the field of play. Not only does it go against the spirit of the great game but it also makes a mockery of the contest and our sense of fair play.

“Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football,” wrote Albert Camus. Had he been around to watch the now-hilarious, now-outrageous play-acting that has so far been witnessed in the 2014 World Cup, the great existentialist philosopher would have quickly revised his view of the sport.

Of course, there is no attempt here at moralising; nor is this columnist foolish enough to believe that all great footballers are role models. Cloying nostalgia may sometimes make way for dreams of an utopian sporting world. But this imagined world is one that is long dead. Many professional sports writers are empiricists rather than fantasists these days.

“A cynic is a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be,” wrote Ambrose Bierce the late American journalist and satirist.

And, increasingly, with the no-holds-barred commercialisation that has rapidly raised the stakes in every popular sport, there may well be quite a number of men and women answering to Bierce’s description of a cynic — not the least, the author of this column.

Yet, we continue to believe that football, at every level, provides a level playing field and that matches are, more often than not, won purely on merit; we continue to believe, too, that the moment a player dons his nation’s colours he would not only try to do his very best to achieve success on the field but also make sure that those sacred colours are not tainted by his deeds.

Then again, even when you are playing, in the main, for yourself rather than for your country, sportsmanship counts. And occasionally we do get to witness acts of nobility, but they are becoming rarer and rarer.

Only the other day, at the Wimbledon tennis championship, during a tense fourth set in a second round match, Novak Djokovic willingly conceded a point at 5-5 in the fourth set to Radek Stepanek, although the chair umpire called for a replay of the point after the latter’s challenge had been validated.

Master of histrionics

At the other end of the moral spectrum was what the Dutchman Arjen Robben — a player of uncontested brilliance — came up with in the World Cup round of 16 match against Mexico, as he sought to live up to his widely acknowledged status as a master of histrionics.

You can argue all you want if the veteran Mexican captain Rafael Marquez’s outstretched leg, which appeared to bring Robben down in the penalty area in the fourth minute of injury time, was a foul that inarguably deserved a penalty. But the match referee Pedro Proenca thought it did.

“It [diving] is becoming a cancer within the game. If it’s clear it’s simulation, they should be severely punished,” said FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce two years ago.

He might have chosen his words better. For ‘diving’ is an act of free will; cancer (getting it) most certainly is not.

As you might have expected, Robben appeared remorseful — not for the penalty but for his dive in the first half.

“I must apologise. The one [at the end] was a penalty, but the other one was a dive in the first half. I shouldn't be doing that,” he said. “It was awful and stupid.”

Robben’s electrifying runs down the flank and into the penalty area have been one of the great sights of this World Cup. Nobody — barring perhaps Lionel Messi for Argentina — has been quite as influential a figure in his team’s success so far.

But exceptional athletic gifts do not earn a player the right to cross the thin line between the acceptable and the condemnable.