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11 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Diving used to be what foreign players did. But now we Brits are rule-benders too

Amazing, really, how long our national self-deception has lasted.

By Hunter Davies

For the last two weeks, Spurs midfielder Dele Alli has been subject to endless abuse from the back pages and opposition supporters for being a diver. Even the Rochdale fans, in their FA Cup match against Spurs, were holding up home-made banners, so sweet, warning him off.

Private Eye, which normally has no interest in football, its editors being toffs, has two bits about Alli in its current edition. He appears in a cartoon going into a jewellers where the assistant says to him: “We have a fine selection of divers’ watches, Mr Alli.” Which is a bit complicated. His appearance in the “Commentatorballs” column is simpler: “Dele Alli was guilty of stimulation against Liverpool,” – Perry Groves, TalkSport.

Diving is the art of pretending to be injured, going down, preferably in the penalty area, to win your team a free kick. When I was a lad, English players did not do this, only dirty Argies or cunning Eyties, or foreigners generally, who could not be relied upon to play the game properly. We were brought up to believe that British players never cheated. We gave football to the world, along with the notion of fair play. You still find versions of the phrase “le fair-play” in many languages, along with their words for goal and for penalty.

It went back to the public schools that created the rules and regulations of football, setting up the Football Association in 1863. Public schoolboys never cheat, do they? So obviously, early footballers didn’t either.

If there was an injury to a player on the other side and he could not carry on, teams such as Corinthians would voluntarily drop one of their own players to make the numbers even, there being no substitutes in early football. Wasn’t that sporting?

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At the same time, while not bending the rules, there were some incredible foulers, upper-class hooligans who really got stuck in. This was allowed in the early years. You could barge a goalie into the goal while he was holding the ball. You could kick people up in the air, scythe them around the ankles, shove them to the ground.

Lord Kinnaird, who was star of the Old Etonians in the 1870s and 1880s, and played in nine Cup Finals before becoming FA president, was known for his violent tackling. An FA official visited his home once, where his mother confessed she was worried about her son, “I’m afraid Arthur will come home one day with a broken leg.” “Don’t worry, madam,” said the official. “It will not be his own.”

In 1885 professionalism came in, and the working class invaded the sport on the pitch and in the stands. There was corruption in the form of money, with backhanders and dodgy deals, but on the pitch fair play was still observed.

We always believed that foreigners looked up to us, admired our wonderful values, wanted to be us. This has not totally disappeared. Most Brits still believe, well, till perhaps this winter, that our NHS is the envy for the world. And our Royal Family. And our parliament, our politicians. All envied by the world. Amazing, really, how long this national self-deception has lasted.

Today, when it comes to diving in football, we are just as bad as everyone else. When Jürgen Klinsmann arrived at Spurs, he came with a reputation as a diver. He nicely mocked himself when he scored his first goal, diving full-length on the pitch in celebration.

Gary Lineker has been tut-tutting about Dele Alli’s diving habits, which is a bit rich. I can remember him diving when he got into the box, knowing he had lost the ball. Diving is partly do with physique. Slender, clever players, like Klinsmann, Lineker and Alli have gone through their playing life being clattered, so look out for a chance to get the ruffians punished. Bulldog players like Alan Shearer are too busy bursting forward to think
about diving.

Diving is now commonplace in most British teams, trying to gain an unfair advantage, bending the rules. As in football, everywhere. In Business. In government. And in normal everyday life. l

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This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war