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Diving is thriving at the World Cup

Some of the world's best soccer players are also actors, and it's tough for one busy referee to spot the floppers.

July 08, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Durban, South Africa — Early in the second half of the Netherlands' World Cup quarterfinal with Brazil, Dutch forward Arjen Robben jumped high in the air, then fell to the ground violently as if he'd been shot.

Never mind the fact that Brazilian defender Michel Bastos, the man closest to Robben, never touched him. Referee Yuichi Nishimura bought the act, awarded Holland a free kick that Wesley Sneijder turned into a goal, and half an hour later Brazil was on its way home.

The Dutch, meanwhile, will be playing in Sunday's final.

Was Robben guilty of cheating? Or was it simply gamesmanship?

"It's not part of the game. It's cheating, let's be honest," says former Italian World Cup player Giorgio Chinaglia, now co-host of "The Football Show" on Sirius-XM.

Not so, says Alexis Lalas, a two-time U.S. World Cup veteran and now an analyst for ESPN.

"It's not cheating," he says. "The ability to sort of recognize and take advantage of that opportunity is what being a soccer player is all about. It's part of the game."

So how does one man's cheating become another man's opportunity? FIFA's rulebook doesn't prohibit a player from going to the turf in pain, but it says "attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled" can be punished by a yellow card.

Distinguishing between the two, however, is among the toughest of judgment calls for the referee, who has dozens of other things to watch. And to complicate matters, players on some national teams are reportedly taught how to flop, or dive, in an effort to fool the officials.

To counteract that, FIFA started a referee assistance program after the 2006 World Cup to help officials spot dives by providing them with scouting reports and video on teams that had a reputation for embellishment.

Even with that information, however, referees must be in perfect position to catch the obvious fakery that so often shows up on slow-motion TV replays. And not wanting to rule against a player who may have been seriously fouled, even injured, most referees tend to buy the histrionics.

"That puts the referee in a bad position," Chinaglia says. "It happens in a fraction of a second. The naked eye can't see that.… It's cheating the fans."

And the opposing team too. Done correctly, a dive can win a team possession of the ball on a free kick, as happened in the Robben case. Embellish it enough and the player victimized can be given a yellow card or even wind up being expelled — as happened in the Brazil-Ivory Coast game in this World Cup following a performance worthy of an Oscar.

Kader Keita of the Ivory Coast got Brazilian star Kaka ejected in the waning moments of Brazil's 3-1 win when he fell to the ground in a heap, holding his face and screaming in mock pain — all after purposefully bumping into Kaka's elbow from behind.

Television replays of Keita's over-the-top acting were shown repeatedly with even Kaka's 70-year-old grandmother Vera taking a shot at the French referee, Stephane Lannoy, who carded the Brazilian playmaker. "I can't repeat what she said about the referee," Kaka said.

Because of the ejection, Kaka was not allowed to play in Brazil's final first-round match with Portugal, which ended in a scoreless tie.

Even Lalas draws a broad line separating what Keita did with what's acceptable.

"There's always been rolling around and there's been embellishing. And the good referees recognize when a player is taking a dive" he says.

"Now when you get hit in the chest and you grab your face, it's acting. You should be probably be penalized for that. That's deplorable."

But how do you make that call? With one referee to monitor 22 players on a playing field that stretches over a couple of acres, missed dives are inevitable. It's one reason why U.S. World Cup star Landon Donovan says FIFA should consider adding more referees.

Charlie Stillitano, a former MLS executive and onetime college All-American who co-hosts "The Football Show" with Chinaglia, favors retroactive penalties. If replays show a player embellished a fall, Stillitano says, he should be given a yellow or red card after the match that would carry over to the next game.

That, he believes, would lead teams to police themselves. "There's no room for it in the game and it ruins the game," he says.

For some, learning to take the foul — and acting it out to make sure the referee doesn't miss it — has become an art form. And that's no more cheating than when an NBA player goes down extra hard after a slight charge or when a baseball player acts as if he's lost a limb when he gets nicked by a pitch.

It's all about selling the call.

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