Thirty years ago, Torvill and Dean enchanted the world at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo with their rendition of Bolero. Their performance won gold and set records as they scored a set of perfect sixes. Their routine changed ice skating. They creatively elongated their performance to fit the musical score by staying on their knees at the beginning, and they introduced ‘death on ice’ to the sport with their finale, collapsing on to the white stuff as if they’d been shot. It started a trend. Before you knew it, skaters were finishing their dances with more and more elaborate death routines. Appearing to have simply been shot was ‘old school’. Skaters mimicked being mown down by Gatling guns, or from being slashed with a thousand cyanide laced blades. Yes, it became ridiculous. Utterly absurd.
Football has its own version of death on ice. I shall call it ‘Death on Grass’. Others refer to it simply as diving or cheating. The more eloquent commentator refers to it as simulation. But it’s far more than that. It is truly performance art. It’s a dance. It’s a talent. Some are better at it than others. And it is played to an audience of three. True, there may be tens of thousands in the crowds and tens of millions watching at home on television. But the performance is purely for the benefit of the referee and his two assistants on the line. The referee signals his approval of the dance in question by blowing his whistle and awarding the match to the team who performed Death on Grass the best over the 90 minutes.
The evidence that it is an art form and not cheating? Every time you hear someone say ‘well, it’s part of the game these days‘. Or, ‘...I know, but that Robben, he’s just so good at it‘. Or even, ‘…yes, but if you leave a leg out, you know what he’s going to do‘. Even my own argument against diving is an admission. ‘But it shouldn’t be part of the game’. That I say the word shouldn’t as opposed to isn’t is a confession that I know that actually, when all is said and done, it is. And so it continues. Our beloved, beautiful game continues to be shamed and gamed by artists performing Death on Grass.
Some of it is almost Monty Python-esque. Death by shooting, slashing, from a piano dropped on the player from a great height. Death by being shoved in a tumble dryer or from being struck by a bulldozer. Some look like they are in a rabid death throe. Do you remember Indiana Jones and all those lucky escapes he had from certain doom? Did you ever wonder what those scenes would have looked like if he hadn’t escaped? Watch a game of football and all will be revealed. When and where exactly did all this nonsense start? I do not know. But being British I will point an accusing finger at the continentals. Especially the Italians. But you know the Germans are probably at the centre of it all. Bloody Germans. Where will it end? Hopefully before several team mates go so far as to get together and choreograph ‘death by nuclear blast’.
Football has spent the last week completely focussed on the Luis Suarez biting incident. It shocked the entire sport. You don’t bite on the football field, Luis! You are an animal! But what were the actual consequences of his bite. Not to make light of the trivial bruising to Chiellini’s shoulder, but the consequences to the result were as they should have been. On the field that day, none. After the event, the offender was punished. You could argue that Suarez should have been sent off, and that this might have altered the final outcome. I accept that. But his action in itself did not influence the scoreline.
Last Sunday, Arjen Robben, a world renowned grand master of Death on Grass, treated the world to a special performance of his art form. Which is, technically, every bit against the rules as biting. The consequences? The Mexican football team were knocked out of the competition. He broke the hearts of more than a hundred million of my compadres and comadres. El Tri’s grand Brazilian adventure was cruelly and unfairly cut short. We were deprived further touchline remonstrations and celebrations by Miguel Herrera. We must suffer further games of Dutch Head Kicking football. Yet, as further evidence of how open to interpretation Death on Grass is, there are arguments on both sides, for and against Robben. But as a fan, I’d rather see Suarez take a nibble out of a players should than see a team cheated out of the whole competition. And then there’s this guy. Who shall henceforth be forever known as What The Hell Oh My God guy. But the Guardian has a more composed view…
For the record, my firm opinion is that Robben dived and cheated. Was there a sliver of contact? I don’t care. Robben clearly played the ref, not the game. Who do I blame? Robben, of course. Plus, his manager. Indeed, I blame all managers. I always find the post match interviews galling, having to listen to a manger ranting and raving about how his side were cheated. Here’s the deal. If the referee is fooled, then the only consequence a player might face for his cheating would be via his manager. I cannot recall a single incidence of a player actually having to face any consequences for diving in a Monday morning meeting with his manager. I have, a couple of times, heard a manager say ‘he’ll have a few words’ with an obvious and persistent diver. Who continues diving the very next week. So one assumes those words were ‘keep it up, son!’
Football mangers will continue to bemoan ‘poor refereeing decisions’. They will continue to send teams out who will attempt to create the perfect conditions to goad a poor decision out of the ref. I will continue to mock their hypocrisy. And nothing will change. Until the governing bodies take firmer action. A television referee for top flight football. Who can view the replay, at different angles, and make an informed and more accurate decision. The game can be brought back and the offender punished.
Some people say this would break up the flow of the game. I argue it will do quite the opposite. If the players can’t get away with it, they won’t do it. The flow of the game will be improved. And games will be decided by goals again, rather than by performance art.
The world of ice skating eventually curbed the ever more evocative interpretations of death. The world of football can do the same, if it imposes its will on to the players taking the field. Let’s not forget that football is a game. It’s sport. It’s not, despite Bill Shankley’s assertion to the contrary, more important than life or death. Twenty years ago yesterday, a sad and non-simulated ‘Death on Grass’ type incident occurred. Colombia’s defender Andres Escobar was gunned down and killed, days after scoring an own goal that knocked his country out of the World Cup in the US.
Colombia was not a safe or happy place at the time. This was only eight years after Colombia had been due to host the World Cup themselves, in 1986, but were forced to give the tournament over to Mexico due to a lack of finance to put the necessary infrastructure in place. It was a shame that such a talented team who had such high expectations had to exit in such a fashion. More of a shame that the defeat lead to the death of one of the team’s stars. I watched a movie/documentary called The Two Escobars a few years ago. It was an excellent film. It’s now on YouTube. Enjoy…