Fairly high on most people's wish lists for football in 2013 would be for something to be done about simulation, or diving.
The issue is not going to go away. It has been around at least since the mid-60s, which is as far back as this correspondent can remember first hand, though it never used to blight the game as much as it does at present. Some would tell you that is because of the influx of foreign players into the English game, preferring to believe that our honest product has been tainted by association with blatant cheats who roll around in agony at the hint of contact and are encouraged to deceive the referee at every opportunity by dastardly, unscrupulous coaches; others would point to a long list of British names with a reputation for serial simulation, some of them well-established and otherwise highly thought of, and conclude that we Brits can dive and cheat with the best of them.
None of that is going to change. If you can gain an advantage from trying to fool the referee there will always be players willing to try. If more players are at it than used to be the case it is probably the price the game has to pay for cleaning itself up so successfully. Contact is almost a dirty word now, whereas if you watch footage from before the 1990 World Cup you will see that contact was the name of what used to be an unrecognisably dirty game. You would have had to jump pretty high in the air in the black-and-white era to convince a referee you had been illegally kicked or challenged, since you were being kicked more or less all the time and referees were prepared to tolerate it. Nowadays, with the game much faster and even minimal contact frowned upon, players are encouraged to go down if they feel a clip because otherwise the referee may not notice a foul had been committed.
Part of today's problem is that all contact is deemed illegal, not least by the player who feels it. To take the most recent example, the Gareth Bale incident in Tottenham Hotspur's game at Sunderland, replays established that Craig Gardner had banged him on the knee, so Bale would have felt within his rights to go down. Whether he had to go down is a different matter, it was hardly the wildest challenge you will see and Bale might have been better advised to stay on his feet and try to score, but only the player knows how much he was knocked out of his stride. The referee, without the help of all the slow-motion replays, could only hazard a guess, which is why it seemed such an injustice when Bale was booked for a dive. Injustice was then piled upon injustice when Bale incurred a suspension for a fifth booking, with three of the sequence relating to diving, and then it was suggested that as Bale had a reputation for going down easily, booking him for simulation was a much easier call for Martin Atkinson to make than awarding a penalty against the home side.
Here is another part of the problem. The real reason Bale missed the game against Reading on New Year's Day was through the law of unforeseen consequences. When Fifa launched its anti-simulation initiative a few years ago and encouraged referees to caution players for diving, it probably imagined that after a number of players had been exposed as cheats and suffered the consequences the practice would fall out of fashion. That has not happened. On the contrary, the diving issue is bigger news than ever, with controversies in almost every game. Even in the Sunderland-Tottenham match, by far the worst dive went unpunished. "The referee made a big mistake in booking Gareth Bale and it is beginning to look a bit like persecution," André Villas-Boas said. "Jermain Defoe did a dive in the first half and the referee didn't do anything."
The best option for the referee, in hindsight, would have been not to do anything about the Bale incident either. If he didn't feel it was a penalty he didn't have to give a penalty, but he seemed compelled to take the view that if it wasn't a penalty it must have been a dive, and act accordingly. Instead of viewing the situation as a coming together of players that did not necessarily warrant drastic action, Atkinson appeared pressured by his own guidelines to decide whether it was one thing or the other. So he ended up, on fairly scanty evidence, branding Bale as a cheat who deserved punishment. And Bale ended up with a ban and an even bigger reputation as a diver to take into the next match and the next referee.
It ought not to be this way. No one but Bale knows the extent to which his cautions for diving have been deserved, but the point is that referees cannot know either. They are only guessing, and having to guess whether players are cheating or not is making the current situation worse. Not only is the Fifa war on simulation not working, it is showing unexpected and undesirable results. Referees should be booking players only for obvious dives, not that there are ever many of those. They should stick to making up their minds whether a foul has taken place and leave the subject of impugning players' honesty to television panels with their endless replays. If Atkinson had refused Bale the penalty and told him to get on with the game it would still have been clear he was unimpressed with the claim, after all. Bale would not have been happy, but in a way he would have been given the benefit of the doubt. A reasonable compromise, one would have thought. Much better than calling someone a cheat when an area of doubt existed.