It’s time for us Brits to move on

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou.

September 6, 1989. Stockholm. England vs. Sweden. This game is remembered for one thing and one thing only: Terry Butcher’s heroics. Injuring his forehead early on, Butcher left the field to receive treatment. Swathed in bandages, the defender returned to action. His constant heading of the ball during the remainder of the game re-opened the wound to such an extent that his white England shirt had turned red with blood. As the final whistle blew, the state of Terry Butcher was a picture. One of the most iconic images in football history. A true England lion.

If you were to ask an England fan after that game what they thought of Terry Butcher, they’d have told you how he typifies the British game. They’d have told you how being committed to the cause and putting your body on the line is all they, the fans, ask of you.

“This is what it’s like playing for England,” the then England manager, Bobby Robson, told a young Paul Gascoigne in Stockholm that night.

Fast-forward twenty three years and those same principles remain. British football fans love a challenge. Most would rather see a crunching tackle than an outrageous piece of skill. There’s nothing wrong with that, each culture has a different outlook on football and how it should be played. Take Latin countries for example, diving is considered an art. No one bats an eyelid; it’s very much part of the game.

In England, we have a very different view. Diving is something we generally despise in this country. It goes against everything we, as a nation, believe in. Nowadays, pretty much every 50/50 challenge is analysed, with pundits looking at 4-5 different angles of a replay before determining whether a player dived or not. There are two types of dive: exaggerating a challenge by going to ground, and going to ground under no challenge at all. Both are frowned upon, however, one is distinctly worse than the other in my opinion.

Football is at a stage now where players are at risk of committing fouls without even touching an opponent. Something as innocent as an outstretched leg when challenging for the ball can be taken advantage of. Take last weekend’s match between Chelsea and Arsenal, for example. Chelsea midfielder Ramires won his side a penalty after being tripped by Wojciech Szczęsny – or so it seemed. Had it not been for Gary Neville’s half-time analysis, how many of you would have noticed that the Brazilian in fact dived? I certainly wouldn’t have. Diving has become a skill more and more players are learning to perfect. There was once a time when a football pitch was a battlefield. Times change, though, and I think it’s about time our mentality changed with it.

Is exaggerating a challenge actually cheating, or is it just one of the many forms of ‘gaining an advantage’? Players will always look to gain an advantage over opponents, whether that’s in a World Cup final or on a Sunday morning in the park, yet only the ones who dive are branded ‘cheats’. Let’s say, for example, a player controls the ball with his chest inside his own penalty area, arms raised. The opposing team and fans scream “handball”, in the hope of influencing the referee to award a penalty. If the referee does point to the spot, are the opposing team and their fans cheats, or have they just made an attempt to gain an advantage for their team?

In 2005, Tottenham Hotspur’s Pedro Mendes struck a shot from the half-way line which clearly beat Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll. Clawing the ball out of the goal, Carroll continued as if nothing had happened, fooling the officials in the process. No one labelled the Northern Irishman a cheat for not owning up and admitting it was a goal, though, did they? I can go on. If a referee incorrectly awards a team a corner, is a member of the team he awarded the corner to expected to inform him that he got the decision wrong, even though that same player probably raised his arm to call for it? Finally, what if a player is through on goal but gets brought down by a member of the opposing team; is he a cheat, or is he just ‘taking one for the team’?

Where do we draw the line? All of the above examples are forms of gaining an advantage, diving is just at the top end of the scale. Answer me this: If Wayne Rooney was to go to ground under minimal contact inside Argentina’s penalty area to win England a penalty in the final of next year’s World Cup, would we complain? Would we prefer him to come to his senses prior to taking the spot-kick and purposely miss, purely for the good of the game? The answer’s probably no.

Winning at all costs is what top-level, professional sport is all about. I’m not asking you to condone diving; I’m merely saying this country’s attitude towards it should change. 

Chris Mortlock