Neymar Has No Choice But To Be A Crybaby (Seriously)
It will not be easy to reduce this behavior.
This year’s World Cup has been one of the best in recent memory (not that I’ve been around for many). There has been no shortage of last minute goals, upsets, and all the other components that make for an exciting tournament.
One of my favorite parts of the World Cup is it how it always brings casual soccer fans, or even non-fans, into the fold and gets them interested in the sport. Even without the US competing, the vast majority of my colleagues have been glued to our TVs for each game, memorized schedules, and cheered along like a genuine fan (although this is not true everywhere).
All that being said, there is still an aspect of the game that triggers a great deal of hate from the soccer outsiders—and it has gotten to the point where even passionate fans of the sport are fed up as well. There are teams and players that are bigger culprits than others, but by and large, there has been too much diving, exaggerating, and general simulation or faking of fouls/injuries.
Chances are that if you have watched the World Cup, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. I chose to include Neymar in the title since he is particularly guilty of this phenomenon, and there were massive conversations across social media discussing his transgressions.
Just take a look at this tweet for a sample.
— swag sister 😎⚽ (@qwertyflipflops) July 6, 2018
In case it still isn’t completely clear, the trend I’m discussing consists of:
A soccer player getting lightly fouled (kicked in the shin, ankle, hit across the body by a flailing arm, pushed, pulled, poked)
- Some of the worst offenders don’t even get legitimately fouled, there is either ZERO contact by the opposing team player, or it is within the rules of the game (usually battling for possession of the ball)
Exaggerating the contact by falling to the ground dramatically, or recoiling dramatically
Rolling around, or lying on the ground clutching the supposed injured or hurt body part
The referee blowing his whistle and calling a foul, then awarding whatever cards he deems necessary, and whichever kick the team deserves depending on the spot of the foul
The primary objective is to gain a foul that will give their team a free kick from an advantageous position, or even a penalty kick.
They also can punish an opposing team player but now getting them in trouble with the referee, and perhaps earning them a yellow or red card (when they deserved just a light warning or no foul at all).
This can also happen if someone on the leading team wants to waste time and break up the flow of the game, they can earn a foul to stop the play and fake an injury to further delay.
This phenomenon is also present in basketball, but is called flopping instead. It is fairly similar to soccer, although the trend there is less exaggeration, and more players looking for fouls by changing their playstyle and complaining to the ref.
Also the free throw is a more common component of the game than the penalty kick, and can only score a team three points at most—in a game that often reaches triple digit conclusions. A goal in soccer has a much bigger effect.
In basketball, players are allowed to foul 6 times before being thrown out of the game, and rarely is someone ejected immediately. Meanwhile, soccer players only get one warning card (yellow), and the next yellow turns into a red that means ejection from the game. Soccer referees do have discretion to give verbal warnings before they give cards though.
The point remains that this trend has worse consequences in soccer than in basketball, but basketball fans will be familiar with the phenomenon.
Here is the bottom line about diving—it makes the players and sport look weak and soft, it ruins the flow of a game, and most importantly, it can wrongly affect the outcome of a match in a huge way (take this notable example of Arjen Robben’s antics knocking Mexico out of the 2014 World Cup).
To begin with, the players in question are likely to get fouled, and when fouled, likely to go flying in the air.
Usually it is the faster and decisive attacking players that are going to put themselves in situations where they can get fouled—running straight at or past defenders, and employing tricky dribbling skills. The are directly putting themselves in the path of danger in order to create opportunities for their team.
These players tend to be quicker and more reliant on their footwork/ball handling, because of their physical disadvantage—wingers especially are shorter, skinnier individuals. When pitted against defenders that weigh on average 30-40 more pounds than them, and are on average 4-5 inches taller, it is a simple physics equation to determine that any contact at high speeds could result in a large displacement.
Defenders are always the tallest and strongest outfield players, and in a fast paced game like soccer, cannot always catch up to the speeds of the attacking players when they attempt to dispossess them. If you’ve ever played soccer, you know how difficult it is to take the ball away from someone charging at you full speed without nipping their ankles or leg. A half a second mistime can result in a legitimate foul if you don’t manage to catch a piece of the ball.
Apart from the likelihood of these being somewhat legitimate fouls, there is also the referee that has to answer for the calls. Refereeing a soccer game is a labor intensive job, as the referee has to have the fitness to keep up with the action for 90 minutes—running up and down the entire field chasing the play.
With the pace of the game, or the arrangement of the players, it is common that a referee falls behind or does not have the best view on a foul. Therefore his judgement is largely reliant on the aftermath of the foul, although he does have assistance from his assistants (and now the Virtual Assistant Referee system).
Even if we accept all these things as truths, there is no denying that there is still a large element of simulation in today’s game.
And why wouldn’t there be? If you are a player who cares deeply for your team’s victory, there are few smarter plays you can make than faking an injury to waste time, drawing and exaggerating a foul, or simply making one up to earn a free kick/penalty kick.
Let me explain why this is the optimal course of action if you want to win—as much as it pains to me to watch it as a fan.
The payoff(s) of drawing a foul are large
Earning a free kick in a dangerous area is a nearly guaranteed chance to put a shot or header on goal
Earning a penalty kick is a nearly guaranteed goal
Making an opposing team player get yellow carded has made them much less likely to play physically in fear of getting another—getting them red carded has now given your team a man advantage
Rolling around on the ground and laying there clutching yourself shaves valuable time off the clock and frustrates an opposing team that is losing
- Given that other players also dive and exaggerate, the risk is high that you will miss out on the rewards (and the risk is low that you’ll be punished which I’ll elaborate on later)
Nobody gets rewarded for staying on their feet or playing on at all costs
Once one player exaggerates and earns a foul—he has now set a new threshold for what sort of reaction constitutes a foul
Therefore if you do not have a similar reaction, but everyone else does, the referee has little reason to believe you have been fouled even if you were
This has created a race to the bottom in an already intensely competitive environment
Anyone who has studied game theory will recognize the similarities between what I just described, and the variation of a cooperation game called the prisoner’s dilemma.
The Wikipedia link goes in to detail but the gist is this: imagine two prisoners are arrested for a crime they committed, and are taken to be interrogated separately.
They are offered a deal where if they admit that the other prisoner committed the crime, and the other prisoner stays silent, then they will get off free and the other prisoner will get three years of prison.
If they both point fingers at one another, then they both get two years in prison.
In the event that they both stay silent and do not betray one another, they will both receive a one year prison sentence.
Here is a graphical representation of the options to make it clearer.
In a perfect world where you could coordinate beforehand or completely trust your partner, and where you are invested in the well-being of your partner as well, you would choose to stay silent or cooperate.
Most people are largely self-interested, and distrustful however, so the optimal outcome is to always defect. If you both defect, you’re equally worse off, and if your partner didn’t defect then you have the best outcome possible.
The absolute worse outcome for you personally can only come out of cooperating/staying silent, and then being betrayed.
Let’s look at this through a soccer lens (my own graphic, the exact payoffs are fairly arbitrary):
If the attackers on one team choose to not dive, exaggerate, or otherwise simulate fouls and injuries—and the opposing team cooperates and does the same, then they both will be rewarded by having a game that flows, where the referee is making accurate calls, and will not be disadvantaged by unfairly earned free kicks, penalties, or cards.
If the attackers on one team choose to not dive, exaggerate, or otherwise simulate fouls and injuries—and the opposing team defects, and instead does choose to engage in those behaviors, then they will be sharply punished in the payoff matrix. Legitimate fouls will not be called on them, and they will be subject to free kicks, penalties, and cards that are undeserving.
This brings us to our optimal outcome or the current status quo of soccer. If everyone decides to dive, exaggerate, or otherwise simulate fouls and injuries, then everyone will receive the even payoff of light fouls being taken less seriously, but have equal probability of receiving all the monumental rewards of diving.
There are several players who rarely dive or exaggerate, and thus struggle to earn deserved fouls. Messi, and Hazard spring to mind, and you can find entire compilations online of the brutal batterings they take game after game, without complaining. As honorable as their performances are, they are quite literally costing their teams goal scoring opportunities and fouls that could change the outcome of entire matches (also feel free to bring up players and/or specific plays that serve as examples for the various categories I’m discussing, or even disprove my points).
On the defensive side, you institute a new feedback loop where defenders believe the referees are prejudiced towards the attackers—meaning they think they’re likely to get a foul call anyways, so they play more aggressively since they see no difference in their rewards and punishments.
When it comes down to it, you’re taught from a young age to make every sacrifice for your time, to do whatever it takes to win so long as it is within the rules of the game—and people are known to push the boundaries as far as possible until they are repeatedly punished and forced to change their behaviors. The problem is that this is a behavior that is hard to catch given that it happens within a span of milliseconds and is usually in a grey area.
So should we just accept this as part of the game and move on?
No. There are actions that can be taken to mitigate the frequency of this behavior.
As I just mentioned, the biggest reason that this behavior has spread has been the lack of punishment. Referees are instructed to warn and card players for simulation, but they seem hesitant to call these fouls—and as was discussed, they are hard to pinpoint as well since they can be the result of legitimate contact or soft fouls.
You can expect these soccer players to not act in their self interest for the greater good of the game. Self-regulation will not work.
Here are some steps that can be taken:
- Let the game play out more physically and call less fouls in general
- This isn’t a great solution as it will reward more physically dominant players than skillful ones and could lead to more injuries
- But you’d better believe that attackers would hesitate to put themselves in these high contact situations if they were not getting any benefit and were instead getting physically brutalized
Use the VAR, and add referees on the field to watch for this so that it can be punished more
Using the VAR for every instance would likely slow down the game but if it happened often enough and was met with enough yellow cards, the behavior could be curbed
Players would know that no matter how quickly their dive was in real-time, it would be reviewed over and over in slow motion
Build a culture of rejection
This could be done in one or both ways
Make it an internal thing where teammates are encouraged to chastise fellow teammates for engaging in this behavior for its embarrassment
Become like hockey and allow for fights, so that opposing team players can beat the shit out of offenders and teach them a lesson
Would probably go terribly as people would get into fights for other reasons and they have no protective gear on
Treat injuries with indifference
Never stop the game for an injury unless there’s clear blood or someone unconscious
If you roll around more than x number of times or stay down for more than x number of seconds you have to stay off the field for at least x number of minutes before coming back in to play
To me #2 and #4 seem the most doable and sensible.
I am open to more solutions by all means.
Yeah, it’s annoying. Even die-hard soccer fans find it annoying.
Yet, players like Neymar are stuck in lose-lose situations as a result of their positions, playstyle, pressure, physique, and competitive spirit. Everyone has the same disincentive to lie and/or exaggerate to get the fouls or injuries that give their team an advantage.
Players who stay up and get abused my get respect from us, but they are not earning fouls and have the bruises and cuts to live with. It is up to the referees to stop letting the players get away with it, but that is no easy task.
Let’s hope to see some change in the future.