Simulation in Soccer

Contributed by Grant Findlay.

Ethics in sport is a concept based on a morally acceptable mode of conduct that entails respect for persons, protection from harm, respect for the institution of sport, notions of fairness and equity, and the development of ethical conduct towards others (McNamee, 2000). sportscotland (2008) suggests it is a systematic application of moral rules, principles, values and norms relating to four core values in sport: fairness, integrity, respect and equity. Generally, the ‘ethics in sport’ concept is obtained within three main forms (Chandler, Cronin & Vamplew, 2002). It can either be descriptive (outlining what the moral issue is), normative (dealing with how moral decisions should be made), or meta-ethical (looking at how such decisions are made). Increasingly, sports researchers and philosophers (e.g. Stoll, 1996; McNamee and Parry, 1998) are becoming more concerned with applied, rather than theoretical, sports ethics. For example, McNamee (2001) claims that there is a growing concern in sport – articulated through the media, the public and, to some extent, within sport itself – that the ‘conduct’ of professional sportsmen and women is not as ‘ethical’ as it ought to be – indeed, it is in gradual decline. This concern relates to the personal morality of individuals in sport and the professional conduct within sports organisations.

For players, referees, pundits and football (soccer) fans there is often tremendous controversy about whether a player has attempted to exaggerate the effect of a tackle (i.e. ‘taking a dive’ or ‘player simulation’ as classified by FIFA – Fédération Internationale de Football Association) in order to deceive the referee into awarding an unjustified free kick or penalty (Morris & Lewis, 2009). The issue of ‘player simulation’ has received much [bad] publicity in recent years with the likes of West Germany’s World Cup winning captain of 1974, Franz Beckenbauer (“Der Kaiser”) stating that:

“We all know cheating is bad... it is really an act of total disgrace towards the fans. These things [‘player simulation’] do nothing but discredit the image of football all around the world and must be stopped immediately. None of us in the game wants these incidents. The players are seeking to gain an unfair advantage and attempt to exploit every situation.”
(Beckenbauer, 2006)

Tackling ‘diving’ in football has subsequently become an important aspect of ethics in sport and major football organizations, such as FIFA, are seeking guidance from successful initiatives and policies of other sports to incorporate a relevant set of ethical values aimed at confronting (and abolishing) the act of ‘player simulation’. This approach aims to create a more positive image of world football by attempting to ingrain the four core values of sport (fairness, integrity, respect and equity) into particular aspects of the game.

Football has an endemic problem of cheating, rule breaking and a general lack of respect for ethical values and integrity, elaborated by its most evident form of cheating – player simulation. This form of cheating (or unethical behaviour depending on your perception) continues to attract negative headlines throughout the world. For example, the Daily Mail is currently spearheading a campaign against ‘player simulation’ in the game and FIFA has vowed to ‘defend the integrity of football’ by continuing to take firmer action against those who ‘take a dive’ to gain an unfair advantage (Soccerphile, 2009). From a very general point of view, ‘diving’ is seen as a sign of weakness and in a ‘masculine environment’ clashes with the norms of expected social behaviour. This notion is supported by Sepp Blatter, president of UEFA, who has ordered referees to ‘come down hard and keep the lid on unruly players’ (Cronin, 2006). FIFA have also attempted to prevent ‘simulation’, by implementing more powerful punishments and adapting the rules of the game as part of their ongoing target to stop cheating in football (FIFA, 2006). Consequently, as a result of the ‘player simulation’ phenomenon, the laws of the game have been adapted to state that:

“Any simulating action anywhere on the field, which is intended to deceive the referee, must be sanctioned as unsporting behaviour. This act of misconduct is punishable by yellow card.”
(FIFA, 2008: 35).

Player simulation in the context of football is based on an attempt by any player to gain an unfair advantage by diving to the ground and simulating an injury, thus appearing as if a foul has been committed (Soccerphile, 2009). Moreover, Morris (2009) believes that most ‘dives’ are used to exaggerate the amount of physical contact present within a challenge for the ball. In addition, Victor Li, a journalist from one of the world’s most established football websites (SoccerLens), offers a relatively accurate (and albeit fairly comical) description of a single episode of ‘player simulation’:

“The failing of the arms. The contorting of the face into a grotesque mask of pain and suffering. The rolling around on the pitch in agony to the point where you’re wondering if there’s a priest on hand to administer last rites. The miraculous recovery, as a player suddenly resumes running at full speed and moving around as if nothing had happened.”
(Li, 2009)

In an attempt to abolish ‘player simulation’, Dr Paul Morris, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth has published an innovative research study which aims to recognise the ‘tell tale’ signs of when players are behaving dishonestly. The study could then be used to help referees identify those cheating and disregarding the ethical principles of the game. From the research, Morris (2009) has indicated that there are distinct actions which football players use, either individually or as part of a series, when feigning contact by an opponent. These actions include:

•    Clutching a body part which has clearly not been struck;
•    Taking an extra roll when the player hits the ground;
•    Taking fully controlled strides after a tackle and prior to falling to the ground;
•    Holding up both arms in the air, with open palms, chest thrust out, and legs bent.

When these four distinct actions are used as part of a series, Morris has coined its execution as ‘The Archer’s Bow’. This concept is based on biomechanical movements which are unlikely to occur in a natural fall to the ground. Morris believes that within a genuine fall it is instinctive for the player’s arms to go down towards the ground in an attempt to cushion the blow, whereas in ‘The Archer’s Bow’ the player tends to be in complete control of their bodily movements (See Figure 1). The moment the player’s arms go above their shoulders, Morris suggests that this is the clearest indication that cheating (i.e. ‘player simulation’) has occurred. Therefore, the ‘best’ simulators are those who can fall to the ground looking as natural as possible, but at the same time be bold enough for the referee to assume that an offense has occurred.

Blatant Cheating?

In 2004, England’s elite referees announced that they were ready to clamp down on players’ diving, punishing any offence with a caution and a free-kick in order to tackle what top official, Graham Poll, describes as ‘the cancer of the game’ (Telegraph, 2004). Poll elaborated on this description by stating:

“The credibility of the result goes out the window if a game is settled by a dive. We all hate cheating being successful. As referees, we have become hesitant about giving penalties because of the ‘cancer’ of simulation. Some dives in recent times have been so embarrassing. It’s very clear that players are excellent at simulation. I find it hard to believe that some players aren’t practising.”
(Poll, 2004)

However, in November 2009, the issue of ‘player simulation’ was, once again, brought to the forefront of the public’s attention  when Liverpool’s David Ngog was accused of cheating after earning a very controversial penalty for a 2-2 draw against Birmingham City at Anfield (Reuters UK, 2009). Birmingham City were leading 2-1 with 20 minutes remaining when Ngog went to ground after a challenge by City’s defensive midfielder Lee Carsley. Television replays showed that no physical contact had been made between the two players. After the match, an infuriated Carsley claimed that the incident was an ‘embarrassing case of cheating’ and a poor example to young players. As a consequence of Ngog’s lack of respect for the integrity of the game, the Football Association (the FA) has stated at interest in changing the rules to allow an official disciplinary panel to take appropriate action against players who attempt to gain an unfair advantage through ‘simulation’ (ITV, 2009).

Clever Trickery?

According to a number of professional football players, ‘diving’ not necessarily performed with the intention of cheating as sometimes a player is in a position where a tackle has thrown them off balance and it is safer to go to ground than attempt to stay on their feet and risk injury. For example, Wayne Rooney insists that he would never cheat to win a decision from a referee, although he can understand and sympathise why sometimes it appears as though a player has dived when in fact they have just tried to avoid a foul (Sky Sports, 2009). Rooney has stated:

“As a footballer, I try to be honest. But there are some times when you go down and it looks worse than it is. You might be trying to protect yourself from a defender trying to kick you and are merely trying to get out of the way.”
(Rooney, 2009)

Rooney’s perception is supported by Celtic defender Mark Wilson, who received a yellow card for ‘simulation’ in the Old Firm derby against Glasgow Rangers in October 2009. Wilson fell to the ground in the 18-yard box after a challenge from Rangers’ Sasa Papac, but has pledged his innocence by claiming:

“After being clipped, I stumbled in the box, just because of the pace I was going at trying to chase down the ball. I wasn’t looking for any decision to be made and did not claim for anything, but the next thing I know I’ve been given a yellow card for diving. I am very disappointed about that. Anyone who knows me knows that I would not dive to gain an advantage.”
(Wilson, 2009)

Another elite professional footballer, Robin van Persie, has defended the innocence of certain incidents when a player flamboyantly ‘takes a dive’. In a recent interview (Bleacher Report, 2009), van Persie admitted that he often exaggerates a tackle in order to clearly highlight and indicate to the referee that a foul (albeit often quite minor) has taken place.

This section presents three case study examples which highlight the impact and complexity of ‘player simulation’ on the world of football. Each case study is detailed in regards to evidence and research literature involving an elite professional football player: Cristiano Ronaldo, Saulius Mikoliunas and Eduardo da Silva.

Case Study 1: World’s Most Expensive Player – Cristiano Ronaldo

The world’s most expensive player at £80million, Cristiano Ronaldo, is a role model for young football players in every continent in the world. However, Ronaldo has a negative reputation in regards to ‘taking a dive’ and ‘going to ground too easily’, a reputation in which the Manchester United FC manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, claims has subsequently led to ‘victimisation’ of the player (Times, 2007).  This view is supported by two former teammates of Ronaldo – Ryan Giggs and Henrik Larsson. Giggs, Manchester United’s captain, believes that Ronaldo is paying for his reputation [for diving] from when he first arrived in England in 2003, whilst Larsson claimed (prior to Sweden’s FIFA World Cup Qualifying match against Portugal in May 2009)  that he is ‘inclined to hit the ground a little too easily when tackled’ (Goal, 2009). Ronaldo’s reputation, generated from a foundation of the previous six years, has inevitably led to referees becoming more cautious and inclined to look for reasons not to award a free kick or penalty when, in actual fact, contact has been made.

Case Study 2: Scotland versus Lithuania – Saulius Mikoliunas

In Scotland, the most publicised example of ‘player simulation’ occurred in a competitive international 2008 UEFA European Championship Qualifying match involving Scotland and Lithuania at Hampden Park. Saulius Mikoliunas (a Heart of Midlothian FC player at the time) become a ‘Tartan Army’ hate-figure in 2007 when a blatant and theatrical dive in the 18-yard box won Lithuanian a penalty, which almost delivered a massive blow to Scotland’s Euro 2008 qualifying hopes (ESPN, 2007). Consequently, Mikoliunas was isolated for public abuse and ridicule, particularly from the Scottish Football Association’s chief executive, Gordon Smith, who stated:

“I was disappointed in Mikoliunas. It could be that he reverted to what is acceptable in Lithuania because he was playing for his national side, even though it’s unacceptable here. This is a blight in our game and the more we recognise it the better. I don’t think the referee helped the situation, either, possibly because he comes from a country where that sort of behaviour isn’t so frowned upon.”
(Smith, 2007)

Mikoliunas’ penalty shame became the first ‘fall foul’ of UEFA’s new policy regulations aimed at punishing incidents of cheating missed by referees. The regulations set down an automatic two-match ban for players who ‘act with the obvious intent to cause any match official to make an incorrect decision’ (ESPN, 2007). Therefore, UEFA’s disciplinary panel’s verdict to analyse the incident using video evidence of the match was the first landmark decision to be taken under new regulations dealing with incidents of cheating and ‘player simulation’. Yet, Mikoliunas has shown no remorse for his unethical sporting behaviour by stating that “the decision about me was taken under pressure from some Scottish official working for UEFA” (Daily Record, 2009).

Case Study 3: Arsenal versus Celtic – Eduardo da Silva

The recent case of Arsenal’s forward Eduardo da Silva, once again, brought to the fore the ever vexing issue of ‘player simulation’ (Torres, 2009). On the 25th August 2009, Eduardo dived in a UEFA Champions League Qualifying match against Celtic at the Emirates Stadium in London. This controversial ‘diving’ incident won a penalty (converted by Eduardo himself) which had severe repercussions on the outcome of the match. Arsenal ended up winning the match 3-1 and therefore advancing to the tournament’s ‘mega money’ group stages.

UEFA’s disciplinary panel, however, retrospectively found Eduardo guilty of ‘player simulation’ and of ‘deceiving the referee’ with his tumble against Celtic and was duly awarded with a two-match Champions League suspension. After the Eduardo’s case was sanctioned at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, and was judged on the evidence of written submissions from both clubs, UEFA’s general inspector, Gerhard Kapl, referred to the incident as “gross sporting behaviour... with an obvious dive through the act of cheating” (Guardian, 2009).

Nevertheless, UEFA’s supposed clampdown on diving was brought to a halt after an appeal from Arsenal FC (Football365, 2009). Eduardo’s two-match suspension for ‘diving’ was dramatically overturned by UEFA in September 2009, thus clearing the forward to play in any proceeding matches in the Champions League. Therefore, rather than setting a precedent to the rest of the football world that UEFA (possibly in conjunction with FIFA) was not prepared to tolerate and accept any deliberate forms of cheating, the charge and subsequent withdrawal of Eduardo’s suspension has, instead, delivered a negative message that unethical behaviours, such as ‘player simulation’, will go unpunished.