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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

English football needs to get off its moral high horse over diving

Dele Alli was cautioned for simulation during 2-2 draw against Liverpool, but a booking was all it merited

Tottenham's Dele Alli receives a yellow card from referee Jon Moss for diving during the 2-2 Premier League draw against Liverpool at Anfield. Peter Powell  / EPA
Tottenham's Dele Alli receives a yellow card from referee Jon Moss for diving during the 2-2 Premier League draw against Liverpool at Anfield. Peter Powell / EPA

"You believe that in England you were honest and always perfect?"

The question could be directed at myriad instances of English football's exceptionalism, but was in fact a response from Mauricio Pochettino to its moral fixation over diving.

In a country that has in the past two weeks seen Manchester City's Leroy Sane "butchered" by a reckless tackle and West Ham United's Arthur Masuaku banned for six games for spitting, many in the English-speaking media would have you believe it is diving that is the scourge of the beautiful game, a cancer that needs cutting out, perpetrators hung, drawn and quartered.

The mob is out in force following several incidents in the 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday.

Harry Kane and Dele Alli have copped most of the ire of the morality police. Kane won the first penalty that he would go on to miss after contact from Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, while Alli was shown a yellow card for diving, or trying to "con" the referee, in football parlance.

In both instances referee John Moss was right. TV replays clearly show Karius catching Kane's trailing right leg. The only real surprise is that he was allowed to stay on the field to save Kane's tame spot kick.

Alli was shown a yellow card for going to ground under a challenge from Dejan Lovren that never came. Pochettino accepted the incident merited a booking. The punishment fitted the crime. Job done. Let's move on. But this being England the furore refuses to die down. “My worry is this: of course if you dive, and the referee saw you, you are punished. And he deserves it. But don’t go more crazy,” Pochettino said post-match.

Among the more ludicrous punishments being put forward is that Alli should be banned the next time the two side's meet. It is a proposal in keeping with the disproportionate punishments meted out recently, or in some cases, not at all. At a time when Masuaku serves a six-game ban for spitting, Cardiff's Joe Bennet is free to play while Sane is sidelined, and West Bromwich Albion's Jay Rodriguez is yet to face a disciplinary hearing over an allegation of racial abuse towards Brighton and Hove Albion's Cameroon defender Gaetan Bong during a match on January 13, Alli's offence is deemed by those with rose-tinted specs of English football as worse than a yellow card. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

Pochettino breaks down the intricacies of football tactics as "trying to trick your opponent". And while that leaves little to the imagination, most of us would agree that a Cruyff turn and a cheeky nutmeg should be celebrated and diving should be condemned. But a little perspective is need. Many will scoff at Pochettino's blase attitude towards diving, but the Argentine's contempt for English football forever on its high horse over the issue is understandable. The English view of diving is largely based on a xenophobic stance that it is the disease of "Johnny Foreigner", here to corrupt the blood-and-thunder spirit that defines English players.

Pochettino has admitted that during his playing days in Argentina diving was practiced in training and even considered a skill. A student of Marcelo Bielsa's high-press, high-tempo attacking philosophy but very much raised in the darker arts of defending, it was Pochettino's leg that Michael Owen theatrically fell over to win the penalty that sent England through to the second round of the 2002 World Cup. At Argentina's expense. Four years earlier, the same player made, shall we say, the most of minimal contact from Robert Ayala to win another penalty against the same opponents. The prevailing sense among supporters back then was that England had beaten Argentina at their own game.

Like it or not, diving or "tricking" is as much a part of football as throw-ins and goal kicks. Is it in the spirit of the game? No. Neither is trying to maim an opponent or racially abusing them. If a player dives and is caught by the referee then he should be booked. If a player dives and the referee misses it he should be cautioned retrospectively. English football has far bigger problems than taking the moral high ground over those fond of being airborne.

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