Monday 23 October 2017

Diving apologists drag the game down

Football will be lost if it follows Neville and Carragher's moral compass

Suarez's controversial foul in Liverpool's game against Aston Villa
Suarez's controversial foul in Liverpool's game against Aston Villa
James Lawton

James Lawton

However far Luis Suarez moves up the league table of great players we can be sure enough of one enduring status. It is that he will remain, until the day he walks away from football, as much an ethical dilemma as a performer of astonishing skill.

This is true at least for all those who harbour the fading belief that one day the world's most popular game will stumble upon something resembling a moral compass.

It is an idea that is dwindling as fast as tropical twilight and if we had any doubt about this, a little more of it was eroded when Suarez provided the latest evidence that when it comes to sharp practice he is in a league all of his own.

The new dimension to Suarez's relentless manipulation of football's failure to enforce its own laws - or anything like a working code of conduct - is the outright endorsement it has received from the English game's new breed of ex-pro commentators.

With huge fanfare, the former rivals Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have been launched as the arbiters of what is right and wrong in football.

The trouble, at least for some of us, is that they are well on the way to arguing that they do no longer exist - right and wrong, this is.

No, according to the former Manchester United and Liverpool stars the distinction has disappeared.

PRIVILEGE

There is, according to them, just one imperative. It is to do only that which is right and passingly advantageous to your team. Damn, as completely as you like, that old-fashioned idea that, along with the vast privilege of playing a boy's game in exchange for multi-millionaire status, a professional also has a duty of responsibility to all the kids who tune in to every gesture, every shady tactic, of their heroes.

Neville was especially emphatic after Suarez so palpably dived for the penalty which earned Liverpool a point against Aston Villa at the weekend.

Carragher echoed the belief that, when a player does what a player must do, it should always be on behalf of his own and his team's interests, but what we got from Neville was something akin to a closing argument.

He declared: "Every single weekend it becomes a national debate when a striker goes down in the box. For me, in this case the goalkeeper (Brad Guzan) makes a really poor decision and, 100 times out of a 100 if a 'keeper comes flying out at a forward like that, then you will end up with a penalty.

"I don't know what Guzan was playing at. A lot of people are offended by the potential that Suarez has dived. If I was in a Villa shirt I would be disappointed in my goalkeeper and if I was a Liverpool player I would be disappointed if my team-mate didn't go down."

So there it is, open and shut, done and dusted, weighed as a crisis of conscience and discounted. It is certainly a growing view. Indeed, when the old striker Stan Collymore sounded a lonely protest on twitter he might have been a quixotic ghost from another age.

"The decision was embarrassing. Physical football has been killed by cheats and divers," Collymore complained.

Yet who can say that Collymore did not touch on something more vital to the health of football than a professional need to gain an edge, however dubiously it is achieved.

Niall Quinn, a player of hard but impeccable values, was caught in the argument when he provided analysis on the recent Swansea-Spurs game. Having said after one piece of penalty area grappling that the awarding of a penalty had been extremely unlikely, he added, as an after-thought, "Of course it was technically a penalty."

This, of course, raises the most pertinent question of all. When is a penalty not a penalty? When the entire culture of the game has created a new code of cynicism, a new acceptance that the professional players, rather than those who are supposed to enforce the rules, are permitted to shape football in its most vital areas.

Denis Law recently admitted he can hardly bear to watch the modern game. Why? Because he feels physically sick at the sight of the grappling and the holding and the diving.

CANDID

For Neville it appears there are two games. One is played by the pros and another watched, with varying degrees of insight, by the public.

He was candid about the fact that, whatever the arguments surrounding the action, Suarez had dived.

"Does Suarez dive?" he asked before laying down a working guide for modern football. "If you watch his left leg he throws himself to the ground, plays for the penalty and wins it. I'd call it clever as a professional. People may not like hearing this but it's a fact.

"I can understand the public wanting a clean game but I cannot believe that professionals would come out and say that they were offended. Every professional has tried to win an advantage, win a penalty, go to ground easily at some point in their careers. I guarantee you of this, absolutely."

Football will hardly be surprised to hear the Neville confessional. But can it feel even a touch of uplift? It is one thing to say pros fighting for their clubs, their careers, will always try steal something from their workplace. But it is something else to say that there should no sanction, no guards against theft when they leave the ground.

Where does it leave a game which in another climate might celebrate exclusively the sublime attributes of Suarez's game - and see the rest of it for what it is? It puts football in a graveyard of decent instincts, one which has some of football's biggest names whistling as they pass. The sound of Neville and Carragher this week was certainly tinny.

Irish Independent

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