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WORLD CUP USA '94 / THE FINALS : Going Overboard : Soccer's 'Divers' Take Plunge in Attempt to Gain an Unfair Advantage, and for Referees There Is a Certain Degree of Difficulty in Making Call

July 15, 1994|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They take more dives than Greg Louganis, but theirs rarely end with a splash.

It's more like a crash when soccer players come tumbling down, legs and arms flailing like a broken windmill, faces etched in agony. One moment they are lying on the ground, writhing in pain; a minute later they are sprinting with the ball toward an opponent's goal.

What gives?

"It's the acting part of soccer," said Paul Caligiuri, a defender on the U.S. national team.

The deceptive nature of soccer becomes obvious when some players try to gain an advantage by faking a foul or injury after colliding with an opponent. Usually it is the player trying to push forward on offense. But it works both ways.

Caligiuri is still talking about the World Cup in 1990, when Nicola Berti of Italy took a dive and drew a penalty kick at the defender's expense.

"He's one of the experts at getting a call from the refs," Caligiuri said.

The replays showed Caligiuri did nothing to deserve a foul. As Berti dribbled past two Americans he confronted Caligiuri, the last line of defense.

"I knew what he was going to do," Caligiuri recalled. "It really disappointed me. I was standing on

top of the (penalty) box. I just stood there, legs together and arms up, and he just dove right by me. He started his dive outside the box."

But Berti got a favorable call. If there was any justice, Italy's penalty kick hit the post and bounced wide.

Players try to gain free kicks by faking fouls, or better yet, getting an opponent a yellow card. Sometimes, it is done to waste time to allow their team to regroup.

But in a game that turns on a single play, one foul or free kick can be the difference.

With "Who me?" expressions, most players deny doing it. Yet, for those watching the monthlong World Cup, there is a nagging feeling that it is intrinsic to soccer.

Americans have seen the best acting since Montgomery Clift as players have taken the plunge throughout the Cup, although experts say it has decreased.

"In Italy (in 1990) we had this continuously," said David Will, chairman of FIFA's referees' committee. "It improved out of sight at this World Cup. Players realize referees are up to all their tricks."

Still, some try. And sometimes referees tolerate it--to a point.

Will said referees were instructed before World Cup '94 to give players a yellow card if there is a deliberate attempt to cheat or waste time.

Usually, referees simply signal for a player to rise and get on with the game. Most obey, but there are always those who refuse to back off.

"The best actor?" pondered Andreas Koepke, a German goalkeeper. "Maybe (Hristo) Stoitchkov. A lot do it. You must accept it."

Stoitchkov and his Bulgarian teammates were flabbergasted that the talented striker would be accused of such a heinous offense.

Stoitchkov simply shook his head and walked away when asked about diving.

Said Nasko Sirakov, Bulgaria's attacking midfielder: "Normally, we don't like it when players do that. But some still do it. Who? Teams with warmer blood."

Well, Stoitchkov does play for FC Barcelona.

"No tricks from the Bulgarians," said Boncho Guentchev, a reserve forward.

So who, then?

"The Colombian players," he said. "Maybe the last five minutes in a close game. It's possible."

Although diving is frowned on in the German and English professional leagues, Juergen Klinsmann's name was mentioned.

"He's a bit dramatic and tends to get calls in his favor," Caligiuri said.

The big-time players usually gain the referees' sympathy but not without reason. Most of the dangerous strikers are fiercely guarded and take some brutal hits. So the great ones such as Stoitchkov, Klinsmann, Diego Maradona of Argentina and Gheorghe Hagi of Romania are protected.

When referees gather at a favorite watering hole, the conversation inevitably turns to the notorious divers.

"You don't expect me to name names," said Will.

Sure.

"Well, I can't, but the referees know who they are . . . the players who are famous for this.

"It's not a problem, but we'll never get rid of it. There will still be prima donnas who will take a dive."

Romario, Brazil's brilliant striker, however, has earned respect from defenders for not trying to take advantage.

"He's constantly getting fouled but not looking to get a foul called," Caligiuri said. "That puts him above the rest."

Borislav Mihaylov, Bulgaria's goalkeeper, also respects those who do not fake it. He said diving is risky because if a player feigns injury he could be taken off the field, leaving his team a man short.

FIFA, soccer's governing body, has mandated that injured players must be treated on the sidelines. The player re-enters the game at the referee's discretion.

"That could cause a goal," Mihaylov said.

And when someone is genuinely injured? Sometimes, the referee cannot determine the force of the collision and ignores the crumpled player on the field. FIFA officials have emphasized keeping the ball in play, and referees are judged by doing so. Thus, they do everything in their power to keep the ball rolling.

Will said if referees seem indifferent at times it is the players' fault for faking it so much.

"They wind up cutting their own throats," he said.

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