Play-acting and diving have been on the rise over the past three decades, but FIFA says it is acting to eradicate it. Cunning, gamesmanship, cheating. Call it what you like but this World Cup is sure to feature enough fouls, theatrics and controversial refereeing decisions to infuriate players and fans alike, and keep a global audience enthralled.
The reaction to Thierry Henry's ‘handball goal' in the qualifying play-offs shows just how heated the arguments can become. Football's most famous handball also came in a World Cup, when Diego Maradona's ‘hand of God' goal sent England towards defeat by Argentina in 1986.
Peter Shilton, the goalkeeper who was the victim of that sleight of hand, says: “Incidents such as Maradona's goal are not one-offs. Similar incidents have happened since and they will happen again.”
Goalkeepers no angels
Shilton admits that goalkeepers are not always blameless. “You do get goalkeepers cheating as well by pulling the ball back from behind the goal and things like that,” he says. “There's no excuse for it but it's kind of a natural reaction.”
Cheating came naturally to Paolo Montero, the rugged Uruguayan who, with 19, holds the record for red cards in Italy's Serie A. It was almost a matter of pride for the former Juventus defender, who told this newspaper in 2003: “Football is made for cunning people. I don't think it is true to say that you are disloyal to football if you feign an injury or tug a shirt or do something else to win the game, as winning games is the purpose of football. Cheating the referee is not a sin if it helps your team to win.”
There has been plenty to talk about in previous World Cups, and it will be no different this time. To jog your memory, here are a few memorable moments, all of which are featured on YouTube: 2002, Brazil versus Turkey. Rivaldo was fined for one of the most embarrassing cases of faking injury in football history. He pretends the ball hits his face when kicked at him by a Turkish player who is then sent off. “I'm not sorry about anything,” Rivaldo says.
1990, Cameroon versus Argentina. Claudio Caniggia evades two rough tackles before being hacked down by Benjamin Massing in the last minute of a brutal opening game. The defender is sent off and Cameroon finish with nine men and a 1-0 win.
1986, England versus Argentina. Maradona's ‘hand of God' goal is allowed to stand. He receives no punishment and Argentina go on to win the tournament.
1982, France versus West Germany. Goalkeeper Harald Schumacher assaults Patrick Battiston. The French defender spends weeks in hospital; the referee awards West Germany a goal-kick.
1962, Chile versus Italy. The ‘Battle of Santiago' is, according to the BBC's David Coleman, “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” Armed police help the referee Ken Aston to maintain order. One of the world's leading experts on cheating is Sigmund Loland, whose works include ‘Fair Play in Sport: A Moral Norm System' (2002).
Loland, a professor and rector at the Norwegian University for Sport, divides football's dark arts into different categories, which can be placed on a sliding moral scale. At one end are those spoiling tactics featuring “an increased level of physicality, body-checking and shirt-pulling” which, he believes, have evolved as football has changed and have even become skills needed at elite levels.
Loland's middle category is “classic cheating, which tries to hide the violation and escape any penalty with an unfair advantage.”
Of the handball by Henry in the second leg of France's World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland in November, Loland says: “The public reaction demonstrates clearly that such actions are considered immoral and blameworthy. Henry will have to live with this for the rest of his career.”
Henry's offence was more instinctive than premeditated and Loland believes there are worse forms of cheating. Even the professional foul is not the lowest of the low, as the perpetrator knows he will be punished, perhaps with a free-kick or a caution, and believes “the advantage gained outweighs the penalty.”
What most perplexes FIFA and the public, believes Loland, is that a third kind of cheating has developed over the past three decades, in line with the game's growing popularity and commercialism. Play-acting and diving are, he says, the most immoral forms of on-field behaviour.
Rivaldo in 2002 was the most memorable recent example in the World Cup. “A player simulates a foul to get a free kick and an exclusive advantage, and (and this is often the most important aim) to impose a penalty on an innocent opponent. Diving doubles the moral costs. The intent to impose penalties on the innocent is, to most people, degrading and disgusting. It is probably the strongest challenge to football's moral image.
"To my surprise fans seem to start to accept and even cheer diving when it is to the advantage to ‘their' team. This is probably a good example of how modern elite football really has a negative impact on the moral standards of a society. Just imagine everyday life in which imposing burdens on innocent people becomes more acceptable.”
Is cheating becoming more of a problem? Avram Grant, who led Chelsea to the 2008 Champions League final, is clear that some coaches allow their teams to search for any edge. “Some managers say: ‘I don't want you to kick the legs of the opponents, but if you do it, I'll not be so angry'.”
Shilton, who won a record 125 caps for England and played at three World Cups, believes on-field skulduggery is becoming more of an issue.
“Having played in the 70s, 80s and 90s I have to say there's always been an element of gamesmanship,” he says. “I remember Rodney Marsh tripping himself up in the penalty box, and other players as well. But there's definitely more play-acting these days.”
Gareth Southgate, a member of the England squad at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, agrees and points to the influx of foreign players into the Premier League. “The problem's worse compared to when I started,” he says.
“A lot of that is from players of different cultures coming in. We used to play internationals and you'd be looking at a player who's fallen over from the faintest of touches. We would say it was cheating and they would say it was gamesmanship.”
Montero would no doubt agree with that assessment. FIFA and UEFA, perhaps unsurprisingly for governing bodies concerned with football's image, offer a more optimistic perspective. “In terms of active blatant on-field cheating, my impression is that the behaviour has got better,” says the UEFA General Secretary, David Taylor.
“FIFA hopes and expects that players and officials respect fair play as much as the fans do,” says FIFA's communications chief, Nicolas Maingot. FIFA, he says, are acting to eradicate big on-field injustices and giving the fourth official more powers a recent decision should help.
Keith Hackett, who until last year oversaw Premier League referees, is concerned the World Cup will suffer from cheating and offers a warning to Fabio Capello's team. “Sadly in parts of the world, in some other football cultures, cynical challenges, spitting, and acts of simulation go unpunished. England will have to watch out for it.”
Southgate believes England is not innocent. When Glenn Hoddle's team needed a draw away to Italy to qualify for France 98, the manager had no qualms about employing spoiling tactics. “Glenn Hoddle made it quite clear to us that if we got bumped by the Italians we should go down and draw the foul because they would do exactly the same. And we broke the game up like an Italian team,” Southgate says. England drew 0-0 and drew praise for their performance.
Is it to police cheating? Despite Henry's obvious handball, which led to France's winner, there was no retrospective punishment from FIFA, which to many was a wasted opportunity to make an example of a cheat.
For Shilton it is simple: Henry and every player should be offered firmer leadership before stepping on to the field, while match officials have to get the big decisions right. “The managers at the World Cup have responsibility for their players' behaviour,” he says. “In terms of what happened with Maradona and his handball, you're relying as players on the referees and linesmen, all officials, to control the game in the right way. It's not always possible.”
Loland, meanwhile, says, “FIFA's challenge is not to give in to forces who look for cheap entertainment values: drama, aggression, violence. There is a constant negotiation going on between players, referees, official bodies, and the public and the media's quest for drama and excitement. I believe football is dealing with this in reasonable ways.
“Actually I believe football's biggest challenge is game-fixing. We are only seeing the tip of an iceberg there. But that's another story ...”
©Guardian News and Media 2010
Keywords: 2010 World Cup