“You must be joking ref!”
All soccer fans have been there: it’s an important match, your top goalscorer is in on goal, side-steps the defender and – rather than pinging it past the keeper and rattling the back of the net – he hops, shrieks and collapses like a sack of bricks in the middle of the box like his ACL has snapped in two. The whistle blows and he’s shown a yellow card for simulation (flopping, or diving) and then – miraculously healed – he roars bloody murder in to the ref’s ear before bounding away, victim mentality aroused to giddy heights.
Was there any contact between the defender and striker? Does it really even matter? If there’s a genuine foul and you go to ground, the referee will give a free-kick, penalty and a card as required. If the referee doesn’t think it’s a foul, he will wave you to your feet and you play on: sometimes, the impartial decision just doesn’t go your way.
This is the state of flopping in soccer today. I was supporting my nephew’s under-10’s soccer team recently – cheering, sighing and laughing at all the right moments – when one of the boys went down with a cry, hugging a pretty serious looking injured ankle after a collision. I went from concerned fan to angry adult in moments as I realised he was just acting: playing for the free kick, which was duly given. The other boy – hard done by – gave the ref an earful that would make an 18-year-old cringe, while the “injured” lad carried on, grinning as he prepared his shot.
As an adult who plays a self-refereed sport I was horrified at that flagrant playacting. After a couple days reflection I realised something absolutely critical: the boys had no idea that they were doing something wrong. In fact, by emulating their absolute heroes – Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and all the rest – they must’ve felt like the best players on the field.
The fact is, they were cheating. They were cheating because in almost every soccer game I’ve watched in the last decade – and so in their entire lives – their role models have been throwing themselves around after minimal or zero contact with opposition players. These kids think 10 barrel-rolls after a mild collision, or holding your face after a breath of wind grazes you is the right thing to do.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not the attitude of a majority of players. Lionel Messi is touted as probably the greatest and most skilful soccer player off all-time and plays with a respect and honesty that makes him a standout role model for any sportsperson. Presumably most other soccer players also look down on these melodramas with disdain and embarrassment, but the fact is that it happens too often at the top flight.
There’s little I enjoy more than a cracking game of soccer but simulation is ruining the integrity of the game and filling youngster’s minds with all the wrong ideas about sportsmanship, mutual respect and competing with integrity. If ‘The Beautiful Game’ wants to hold on to that lofty appellation in years to come, then the players had best stop putting their effort in to duping the referee and refocus that energy on putting the ball in the back of the net!