In my last ever game of football in the US in 2012, as a defender with limited technique, I always played within my ability, meaning choosing short passes or aimless punts over attempting to dribble past opponents. But since it was my final game before hanging up my boots, I decided that I would stride into the penalty area and dive in an attempt to secure a penalty. As I hit the deck, the laughter from the remaining 21 players and three officials was raucous.
Many professional players are adept at securing penalties by diving much better than me.
Football associations from across the world, today are successfully using video assisted refereeing (VAR) to combat this.
However, authorities do not use postgame video replay to punish players for simulation (diving), despite huge demand for it by fans. This won’t change for the foreseeable future, because the biggest beneficiaries of diving are the big, powerful football clubs that call the shots.
Economics helps us understand which decisions are subject to VAR. The precursor to real-time VAR was retrospective punishment. After each game, the referee would watch a video of the game they had officiated and looked for refereeing errors. Any clear acts of violent conduct that were not dealt with during the game would result in retrospective punishment for the guilty party in the form of multi-game suspensions. Crafty players who had mastered the art of elbowing opponents in the face away from the referee’s eyes now had to think twice.
Almost all fans welcomed this development because people pay money to which skilled athletes move the ball around with expert technique, and not to see brutes crudely punching each other.
However, observers were left scratching their heads as to why the same system isn’t used to punish the equally despised act of diving. Few things were as frustrating as seeing your team lose to a last minute penalty awarded unjustly due to simulation by an opposing player.
A closer look at the perpetrators and victims of violent conduct and simulation explains the apparent double standard. Elbows, head butts, and punches are sometimes the result of someone losing their temper – which can happen to any player. These incidents have historically been used by less able players as methods for physically intimidating and incapacitating star players from the opposing team.
Crucially, the big clubs with large fan bases and billions in revenues – which are the ones that control football (Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and so on) – field the most talented players. Therefore, these superclubs are the ones that suffer the most from violent conduct, and as a result, they will have lobbied strongly for the implementation of retrospective punishment for the thugs playing in smaller clubs.
When it comes to simulation, the shoe is on the other foot. For a player to dive convincingly, they need to be skillful, as this gives the dive credibility. If a clumsy or technically poor player tries to deceive the referee, the official is much more likely to conclude that the player tripped over themselves; but when Lionel Messi collapses in a heap, it’s very often because he was hacked down by a flailing defender mesmerized by the Argentine’s skill.
Accordingly, the biggest beneficiaries from simulation are the big clubs that hoard the best players. If diving was eradicated by retrospective punishment, this would mean teams like Barcelona and Juventus losing one of the advantages they have over smaller clubs. Consequently, they use their disproportionate influence over football authorities to block simulation-related sanctions.
So, VAR overall helps the integrity of the game, but some parts strongly favor big clubs (violent conduct checks) while others harm big clubs (diving checks), so VAR in practice will be skewed toward the former at the expense of the latter.
Maintaining this double standard requires some rhetoric. Officials will usually regurgitate an unconvincing argument about how difficult it is to detect diving, even with video replays from eight different cameras.
But, as the legendary corruption of football authorities has demonstrated, there is no shortage of bureaucrats willing to subvert fans’ interests if it means keeping the beautiful game’s gravy train running.
The best hope fans have is the World Cup, where power is much more evenly distributed because football powerhouse countries are unable to seize as large a share of the pie as their club counterparts.
Footballing minnows fed up with seeing their progress checked by diving superstars might eventually force a change, but until that happens, expect a continuation of the timeless American sporting adage: If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.