It’s humorously hypocritical for me to be writing this article seeing as how my playing career had more dives than a college bar scene, but I can see clearly now that the game is gone. From the moment I fell in love with soccer at the age of seven, to this very day, I have heard those who refuse to embrace the world’s game trash it for one glaring flaw: the flop. Second to the "there is not enough scoring" complaint is this claim – soccer is ruined by players faking contact and hitting the ground in an attempt to gain advantage against their opponents. I never agreed with this claim until last week’s Real Madrid versus Barcelona game. Watching that flop-fest made me realize that we have a problem, and it needs to be solved.
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Barcelona is the greatest soccer team I have ever seen during the 30 years I have walked this world. I feel like the term "the beautiful game" manifests itself in the art of their play. Barca’s penchant for mesmerizing the crowd with their mastery of the ball and fluidity of movement is characteristically theirs. The young alchemist wearing "the ten shirt," who goes by the name Lionel, makes me feel like the game I played during my career could not have been called the same thing.
Last week, lining up across the white center circle from Barcelona was a team who, if given a unified voice, would probably say (to steal a quote from my family’s favorite movie) "I am no slouch myself." Real Madrid is the most successful club in Spanish soccer boasting a staggering resume of 31 La Liga titles, 18 Spanish Copa del Rey cups and a record 9 UEFA Champions League wins. The talent and skill on the field for Real is almost as scary as the money spent to put them all in those classic white jerseys. When these two teams come together the resulting display of soccer greatness is, historically, such a gift to the soccer fan that it has been deemed "El Clasico." This world-renowned game has been played 210 times and always insights a riotous following. Fans gather to watch the greatest example of a game that is held sacred to the majority of people on this planet.
The latest meeting of these two giants of the soccer world fell victim to the destructive effects of diving. A consistently flawless advertisement for soccer failed to live up to billing and ended up feeling like watching fireworks in the middle of the day. Coaching tactics played some part in the game’s failure to deliver, but the main culprit was the flop.
I couldn’t believe how often the players in this game, some of the best players soccer has today, hit the ground as if impaled by a scimitar. After reviewing the replays, it was apparent that only air molecules could be blamed for the alleged contact. They were all diving. There is always a bit of it in the game, but mostly you see players going down with little contact in and around the box. During the 90 minutes of this Champions League game players were hitting the ground everywhere, as if someone yelled over the PA "AAAAAIIIIRRR RAAAIIIIIIDDDDD!!!!!". It was hard to watch and left me feeling depressed after the game.
I felt cheated. It felt like the first time you realized your mom put that bike together at 1 am, not some fat man in a red suit. I started thinking back over all the times I dove during my career, and how people watching must have cursed at the screen telling me to get up like I was to Alves on Wednesday. In this moment of reflection I flipped to a show called "Intervention" and heard a word that gave me an idea: "enabler".
Professional athletes are the craziest competitors you have ever met. We are the maniacs who stuffed orange $500 bills up our socks before a game of Monopoly or didn’t talk to our fiancée for the rest of the day when she beat us in horse (I let her win). Whoever bought the Martino house on Sanhopper Trail has 50 holes that have been puddied and painted over as a result of ping-pong racquets thrown after close defeats. We will do whatever it takes to win because we can’t stand losing. Winning is like a drug, and professional athletes are addicts when it comes to that drug. Of course soccer players will look for an edge and cheat a little if they can get away with it.
But players have been allowed to get away with it for too long. Authorities of the game have been too light on divers. They have allowed this act to become habit because the consequence of being caught is so greatly overshadowed by the reward of getting away with it. That is why I think that in order to get rid of this flaw you have to take away the one thing that players love more than winning: playing.
To get rid of diving in soccer we need to look back at game tape and suspend those who attempt to deceive the referee and alter the outcome of the game through dishonest play. Just as we look back at games and fine and suspend players for tackles or punches not caught (I mean, we even suspended Rooney for dropping an F-bomb), we need to do so for players who are acting. Going down untouched, grabbing your face when it was your knee the ball hit, these actions are just as detrimental to the beautiful game as a crunching tackle. Some would argue even more damaging.
The only way to get rid of diving in soccer is to take away the thing that a soccer player loves most, playing the game. With the understanding that hitting the ground untouched or simulating contact when none was made could lead to a three game ban, I promise you that we would see players doing their best to stay on their feet and play the game with integrity. Once we extirpate diving from the game of soccer the only killjoys left are the ones who think there is not enough scoring in the game, and I am fine with not having those people join the fun.
Kyle Martino is a former U.S. Men’s National team midfielder and Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year who provides analysis on FOX Soccer’s MLS broadcasts as well as FOX Soccer’s Super Sunday Plus.