Tuesday 28 March 2017

Greater punishments only solution to diving free-for-all

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

W e've gone from 'El Classico' to 'Hell Classico', from the most beautiful of games to the 'Game of Shame'. Hyped as the greatest spectacle in European club football, the latest instalment of the game's fiercest rivalry made for very uncomfortable viewing.

Before we all get too horrified by the sudden decline of the game we love, the behaviour displayed on Wednesday night in Madrid has been seen before in major games, and from both of the sides involved too. Several players decided to dive when barely touched, over-react to every tackle and con the referee on as many occasions as they could. It was difficult to watch for sure, but I know it is a lot more frustrating to play against.

Face an opponent who acts like this and you'll soon realise how successful it can be. Getting you booked is their immediate aim, but the likelihood of you losing your head in reaction to their antics means there's a good chance you will eventually be sent off. It's an exercise in self-restraint as much as anything when you are confronted with this, but diving is done because diving can work.

I have been in many dressing rooms where a player has admitted to hoodwinking the referee or exaggerating a fall in an attempt to gain advantage for the team. Not all welcome it but none object to it if it works.

In the cut-throat arena in which we were operating, the lofty notion of upholding the purist ideals of competitive sport were lost on us the majority of the time. Strikers are judged on how often they score and all teams are judged on how often they win. Emphasis on fair play and integrity are for those outside the dressing room.

It looks terrible, but nobody can say it's not effective. There have been countless examples of referees getting decisions wrong as a result of theatrics from players in the biggest of games. Occasionally players are shown yellow cards on the spot if referees believe they are guilty, but the nature of the offence lends itself to incorrect decisions even then. Match officials need help from somewhere. If such a tactic is to be eradicated, meaningful punishments must be put in place by those who are in a position to do so.

Over to UEFA then, although it appears they have a bit of work to do on other issues first. Jose Mourinho's post-match comments have grabbed everyone's attention. His talk of pro-Barcelona conspiracies (in which even UNICEF was implicated) may have landed him in trouble, as has his sending-off.

UEFA will decide on the severity of his punishment next week. Real Madrid are also facing charges as a result of objects being thrown by their supporters as well as a pitch invasion after the final whistle.

In what was presumably an attempt to gain the moral high ground in some way (which would inevitably fail following the comments of their manager), the club chose to post a three-minute film on their website containing footage of Barcelona players diving and faking injury. A bit rich from a club which employs Jose Mourinho considering the behaviour of teams he has previously managed, but not one player will face charges because of it.

Promoting Fair Play and Respect in any sport involves punishing those who are clearly flouting such ideals. If UEFA fail yet again to discipline players for behaving in this way despite footage of many doing so -- which it is obviously going to do -- they need to end all promotional and marketing campaigns which suggest they want to stamp it out. They merely serve to highlight their unwillingness to do anything about it. The regular complaints from managers about match officials getting the big decisions wrong have become a little tiresome, if not entirely untrue. The sincerity of anyone

making such a claim is immediately undermined if there is footage anywhere of one of his own players diving and an absence of unequivocal condemnation from the manager.

It's hard to think of many who have done that at all, but it's impossible to imagine Mourinho in such a role. After all, he has had more than his share of opportunities to comment on his players diving over many years. All managers and teams suffer from players cheating officials over a season, so they believe they've every right to benefit from it too. That's as much as most think on the matter, which is why bucking the trend can be done best by those in charge of the game. Ban players, fine them and embarrass them. Expose them for the cheats they are, and eventually the practice will have to stop. But that would take strong leadership, and there is little to suggest such a thing exists anywhere in football governance these days.

Winning games and trophies and earning the rewards which follow is bigger business now than ever before. It seems even the very best have succumbed to the temptation to cheat to get ahead. No real surprise there, but the impotence of those in charge merely encourages them. We've seen it all before on a regular basis, but I'm sure we'll be seeing it for some time yet.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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