It may be just me (let’s face it, it often is) but one of the odd things about football is that, while we moan until we’re blue in the face about dodgy offside decisions and bad tackles, the things that really, really get our proverbial goat are spitting and diving. Maybe it’s because all of us, deep down, are aware that linesmen are only human, that in truth we would have probably arsed up that big decision too, had we been wearing their shoes (which, in Scottish football, appear to be trainers so cheap and nasty that they are on the brink of being plimsolls). And maybe it’s because when we play football ourselves, there’s occasionally a moment, when you’ve been nutmegged for the third time in half an hour, or one of your mates has been taken from behind (in a totally non-sexual way, obviously), when there is just a tremendous urge to absolutely pole-axe your opponent with a proper two-footed, studs-up, five seconds after the ball is gone-type challenge. We never do it – a few very twisted individuals excepted– but that animal rage has been there. So, while tackles like Kevin Thomson’s last weekend cause us anger, and random waving of flags by assistant referees cause us to put our heads in her hands time after time (how could the standside linesman at Caley on Tuesday night tell? He wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the play), we tend to get over it. But not spitting. And not diving.
Let’s focus on spitting only briefly, not only because it’s fun to think of Frank Rijkaard’s bodily fluids getting tangled in Rudi Voller’s perm at the 1990 World Cup. I remember, while El Hadji Diouf was going through a period of gobbing on someone twice a season, Alan Hansen explained why it was so reprehensible; not only is it disgusting, but while you can defend yourself against a punch or a head-butt, or even try to leap away from a dangerous tackle, you cannot protect against sputter from close range. He called it cowardly, which is a fair judgement. But it’s not only fans who loath it; anyone caught gets one heck of a ban.
But diving doesn’t. Not consistently anyway. But like spitting, you can’t protect yourself against it, not unless you just back off and let your opponent beat you without a challenge. And like spitting, it’s something that is seldom done outside the professional arena. How many Sunday League matches see players dive to win penalties? Not many, I bet. But every week on Match of the Day there is a spot-kick given when for all the world the attacking player has fallen over an invisible third leg belonging to the defender. Think Tony Hibbert on Sunday for Everton; Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, and, north of the border, Shunsuke Nakamura on more than a few occasions.
There is a large part of me that thinks Eduardo is being made a scapegoat here, and I can’t help feeling that if a British player had done it there would be less of a big deal about it – go back a few years to Ryan Giggs diving to win a penalty at Old Trafford against Artur Boruc, the very same goalkeeper wronged last night. But there’s something very unfair and unreasonable about it all. For let’s face it, Celtic had as much of a chance of overcoming a two-goal deficit at the Emirates as I have of a threesome with Scarlett Johansson and a sixties-era Audrey Hepburn. It wasn’t as if this “simulation” was the difference between Arsenal reaching the glory and riches of the Champions’ League and the mindless tedium and second-string lineups of the Europa League. Not only did he cheat, but he cheated in a situation where it seemed utterly unnecessary. He didn’t need to do it to help his team. And that is why it seems so awful.
The SFA, and Gordon Smith in particular (who continues to do a smashing job, whatever the idiot press say) at least can claim to be making an effort to deal with it. Kyle Lafferty is an example. So too is the stramash they cooked up to get Saulius Mikoliunas banned for his dive against Scotland for Lithuania – though for justice to be truly done, the ref should have been hanged, drawn and quartered for crimes against humanity. And they have campaigned for, at least as a minimum, retrospective bans for players where video evidence shows the dive. And UEFA, in the Mikoliunas incident, at least have had the guts to ban players before.
But that was a Lithuanian, not a superstar Arsenal striker. Michel Platini (Sepp Blatter without the charisma but with the same hopelessness) has said he will look at the decision but is using it to champion his plan of having more officials around the box, instead of technology. Apparently TV pictures would take too long. But wouldn’t refereeing by committee take a heck of a time too?
Maybe fallible referees are something we will have to live with. Maybe we can’t spot, and caution, everyone who dives on the pitch. But we can do it afterwards. There is no point giving a paltry fine, or a censure, to one of these guys post-game. I know some might say a two game ban is not a sufficient deterrent, and that’s fine, but all I want is a chance to be proved wrong!