World Cup mystery solved: Why soccer players dive, as told by the master of the ‘dark arts’
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DOHA, Qatar -- Alejandro Moreno has been called a "cheater" and a smudge in football. He was branded a "diver" and a "flopper" and pelted with expletives, along with hundreds of other prone players. He could preach for hours on why the criticism smacks of double standards and sometimes racial bias, but we'll get to that — for now, class is in session.
"I looked at it as a skill," says Moreno, a former Venezuela international turned 11-year-old professional, of football's most derided tactic. Whether you call it diving or "drawing fouls," as he euphemistically puts it, it's "an art form."
It's widely considered immoral, and Moreno, a master of the "dark arts," wants to make it clear: He doesn't condone outright fabricating contacts and cheating referees. But football, he argues, is "a morally flawed game in which the players will do anything to win". You'll tug at your shirt and your elbows and forearms will tremble. Defenders do all sorts of illegal things that hinder attacking players, but are not penalized - unless the attacking player embellishes the impact of the shirt train or feels a shin strike and theatrically falls to the turf.
“If a defender has taken the advantage away, maybe with a shove, a jab, a grab, a light hold – now you're off balance; Now the advantage you had is gone,” explains Moreno. "So what are you supposed to do?
“One is encouraged to fight through a challenge. But,” he continues, passion seething in his voice, “I see it this way, if you touch me, if you nudge me, if you push me, and you're going to take my advantage away? I have a recourse. And my recourse is, I'm going to sell that contact and make sure I get a call."
This is largely why footballers flop and flail. Your diving doesn't just work; sometimes it is necessary. Continued contact downplays the severity—but the contact still mitigates the potential for an attack. On the other hand, diving is often a player's only alarm bell, a means of alerting the umpires to the true severity.
In situations that create uncertainty, referees tend to use a player's reaction, his or her fall or lack thereof, as a cue. And that tendency, Moreno argues, is implicitly telling players, "If you're going to get that call, you've got to get down."
A few months ago, Jose Mourinho made the same point. After one of his Roma players stayed up and didn't get a call, the Portuguese coach fumed: "I need to change my advice to my players. I have to tell them, "Don't try to stay on your feet, don't play the ball, be a clown like a lot of people who dive like a pool in this league do. Because obviously that's how you get penalties."
However, Moreno would add to that advice: "You sell the call without overdoing the call," he says. "And that's where it becomes an art form."
You don't dive like in a swimming pool. "You see the guys throwing their arms in the air and rolling around," says Moreno. "It won't make it." He advocates a "natural fall" that becomes instinctive for dark arts masters over time — but "it's a natural fall because you've been disabled, not a natural fall because you're being shot at," he notes.
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