Simulation and attempts to con match officials is rife in the UAE; it is up to the referees to get tough to put a stop to the phantom diving.
Referees hold cards to cutting out diving
Al Wahda fans hooted in derision as another Masafi player tumbled to the turf and made a quick decision to grab whatever part of his body he thought might most reasonably support a claim of injury. The clock ticked on.
Josef Hickersberger rose in the Wahda dugout and waved at the medical cart to go on to the pitch to remove the writhing player. The cart did not move because the referee had not called it out, and Hickersberger turned towards the Wahda supporters with arms extended, palms turned up, in the universal "what can I do?" gesture.
In that President's Cup quarter-final, Hickersberger estimated Masafi players fell to the turf and stayed there "20 times in the second half".
But diving and going to ground easily are by no means unusual for a match in the UAE or, indeed, west Asia, where overreaction to the slightest contact may be more prevalent than anywhere in the world.
"Diving is a big problem for football here," said Hickersberger, the Austrian who has coached in the Champions League, the World Cup and in the Gulf for seven seasons since 1995. "This is bad for the game and bad for the spectators because players, instead of concentrating on trying to score, prefer to dive."
He said diving usually is an attempt to coax a caution from the referee, or even a penalty, when inside the box. At the very least, players are looking to get a free kick for their side.
"Sometimes it's really ridiculous, if a player goes down and he's acting. If somebody is yelling and shouting that he's injured, then the opponent for sure will get a yellow card. The louder one yells, the better the chances there will be a yellow."
The Wahda staff, he said, long ago grew sceptical of any player on the turf. "Sometimes we are joking on the bench. 'Oh, this is the end of his career.' You see five seconds later it's a different situation: the player gets up and he continues."
Phantom injuries interrupt the flow of matches in the UAE and the region. So much time is wasted by players sprawled on the pitch that seven minutes of time added on is not unusual; five minutes is routine.
Hickersberger said he discourages diving by his players "because this is cheating the spectators and the opponents".
He added that the theatrics were not so prevalent outside the region. "Football is football. It is not a no-contact sport. It is not basketball or golf, and in international games this diving will not get a foul called."
Not everyone agrees that the UAE is a citadel of diving. Ahmed Khalil, the Emirati national and Al Ahli forward, said foreign players have told him "it's the same everywhere", though it is unusual to see so many phantom injuries in Europe or east Asia, regions where seven minutes of added time in a half is nearly unheard of.
"The only solution," Hickersberger said, "can be that the referees punish the divers, and there's no other solution to it. It's the referees. They have to be aware of the problem and cure it."
This would include showing a red card to players who dive in the box, and ignoring pleas from players carted off to return instantly to the match. "If the referees don't allow him to get in immediately, players will start to think 'Maybe it's not so good for my team if I can't get in.'"
Referees fall under the auspices of the Football Association (FA); the Pro League has no control over them. Nasser Mohammed al Yamahi, head of the referees committee at the FA, said "we have some diving but not so much" as Hickersberger believes. Al Yamahi said continued training of referees would further reduce diving.
Meantime, Hickersberger said he "referees" Wahda training sessions in a Uefa style. "I whistle like I would in Europe." he said.
"I don't whistle the easiest foul. In this area, it's not a physical game at all."