How to spot that cheating diver

Simulation is one of the worst things in football. It’s a cancer in football — Pierluigi Collina, World Cup Final 2002 Referee

One issue that concerns me personally, is technically termed ‘simulation’. Let’s get real – this is diving. Cheating in fact. We’ve all got to show more honesty here. Every week, referees are coming under intense scrutiny when making split-second judgment calls in this area. It’s impossible to get them all right and everyone has got to take a greater level of responsibility — Brian Barwick, The Football Association, 2005

Nobody in the game supports the act of simulation and I think that’s true of managers and all the organisations in the game – Keith Hackett, GM of the PGMOL in England, 2009

Diving is an attempt by a player to gain an unfair advantage by diving to the ground and possibly feigning an injury, to appear as if a foul has been committed. Dives are often used to exaggerate the amount of contact present in a challenge. Players do this so they can receive free kicks or penalty kicks, which can provide scoring opportunities, or so that the opposing player receives a yellow or red card, giving their own team an advantage.

Most spectators of football abhor players diving, or faking a fall, usually to win a penalty appeal.  In the FA Premier League National Fan Survey, supporters were asked to comment on player behaviour and refereeing at the top level (Williams, University of Leicester, 2000). 89% of all fans said the thing that most angered them about player behaviour was how players sometimes “pretended to be fouled.”

We know there are players who cheat. We know diving exists. We know it gets worse the greater the financial prize at stake. Players dive and that puts pressure on referees to identify such unsporting behaviour . Ultimately it’s down to players not to commit acts of simulation. However, as referees, we have a responsibility. Referees need to put themselves in the right viewing angles to see what is happening. It is difficult and sometimes the speed and quality of the player catch referees out.

For me, it is the scourge to get rid of in the game. Better known as cheating – as there is no better word to describe it –  it is called simulation by Fifa and it’s the referee’s duty to spot, recognize and to punish such actions and to act firmly against those players trying to con the referee, the opposition and spectators.

There are four types of simulation to look out for:

  1. When there’s clearly no contact;
  2. When there’s minimal contact and it’s exaggerated;
  3. When the player drags his leg;
  4. Over-reaction, such as when a player goes down clutching his face after an opponent brushed past him.

Referees are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to give a mandatory caution to such players for unsporting behaviour in accordance with Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct:

Any simulating action anywhere on the field, which is intended to deceive the Referee, must be sanctioned as unsporting behaviour. — FIFA, Law 12 Decision 5

Blatant simulation is a mandatory caution; if there is minimal contact, consider a caution. — Fifa directive, World Cup 2006, Germany

It takes a brave referee to show a yellow card for simulation when an attacking player falls down too easily in his opponent’s penalty area. Cautioning a player is not always an easy decision to make, especially when players are jostling each other at high speed. However, Referees as primary guardians of the image of football, should not fail in their duty to punish such blatant cheaters.

The referee should be 100% certain that a player has simulated or feigned an unfair tackle before cautioning him for unsporting behaviour. The referee must be convinced that there has been no – or very little – physical contact by the player who is challenging for the ball. Players who initiate contact with an opponent (dragging his leg over a sprawled goalkeeper) or use slight contact to deceive the referee must be identified and sanctioned with a yellow card.

If, however, the referee is not totally sure, but there is a hint of simulation, the referee is advised to take the earliest opportunity to be seen to warn the player(s) involved. It is not recommended that a referee makes any gesture with his arm/hand indicating possible simulation, as this may aggravate the situation.

Even players acknowledge that it is a difficult aspect for referees to spot and punish accordingly. In this article I hope to share some pointers in identifying simulation, gleaned from various national and international referee workshops over the years and articles from former referees and Fifa referee instructors.

How to identify simulation? A player who is tripped, will pitch forward, his head will go forward and down, his back will arch away from the ground, his arms will fly forward and down to instinctively cushion his fall.

When a player simulates a dive, he will do the opposite of the above mechanics to some degree. He pitches forward, but he throws his head up and back, he arches his upper back away from the ground, his arms fly up – usually above shoulder height – and backward. He deliberately engineers a controlled fall by curving his body away from the ground to maximize the impact in the eyes of the referee. A further significant feature in all cases of tripping versus diving is that a trip is abrupt and sudden, whereas a dive is relatively slow and naturally graceful.

Clearly, not all instances of players falling to the ground are simulated. Some collisions are genuine fouls. Equally, on many occasions, the fouled player could have continued without falling down and making a meal of it. It is the Referee’s job to differentiate the genuine from the simulated. Even rarer is the incidence of player honesty where the referee got it wrong, as in the case of ex-Liverpool player Robbie Fowler’s apparent honesty in March 1997 at Highbury (Arsenal vs Liverpool) when, appearing to tumble under the challenge of goalkeeper David Seaman, he seemed to argue with referee Gerald Ashby against the latter’s decision to award the penalty, claiming the keeper had not touched him! Seaman saved the penalty, but Jason McAteer rammed in the rebound and Fowler ended up winning Uefa’s Fair Play award for his honesty.

A new study by Dr Paul Morris, a psychologist from the University of Portsmouth, could help referees to identify when a football player has genuinely been fouled or taken a dive. Dr. Morris has found that footballers use a series of distinct actions when faking a fall during a match. His research shows that there are distinct actions which footballers use – either individually or in any combination – when faking a fall. These four-point tell-tale signs of cheating include:

  1. Clutching their body where they have not been hit;
  2. Taking an extra roll when they hit the ground;
  3. Taking fully controlled strides after being tackled, but before falling;
  4. Holding up both arms in the air, with open palms, chest thrust out, legs bent at the knee in a false dive what he calls an “archer’s bow” position
Dr Paul Morris demonstrates the “archer’s bow” fall. The arms raised above the shoulder/head is a dead giveaway of a false dive.

“Referees have a very difficult job and given the demands of the task they do it remarkably well. We think even experienced professionals could enhance their decision-making by studying the categories of deceptive behaviour we have identified,” said Dr Morris, who specialises in how people show emotions and intentions. Dr Morris said that the “archer’s bow” was one of the most revealing as it would not occur in a natural fall.

He explained:  “In most dishonest tackles the behaviour itself does not indicate dishonesty, the deception is revealed in the timing and co-ordination of the behaviours. But one action is unique to a faked fall – the archer’s bow. This occurs in many dives but bio-mechanically it does not occur in a natural fall. The arms [in a non-fake dive] either go instinctively down in an attempt to cushion the fall or out to the side for balance. The moment both arms go above the shoulder is a clear indication of deception. Although this behaviour is absurd, the fraudulent footballer does it to try to deceive the referee into believing that the tackle was illegal, and the histrionics are necessary to get the referee’s attention in the first place.”

Eduardo of Arsenal simulating a foul - notice the position of the hands

During his research Dr Morris showed 4-second clips of tackles from televised live games to over 300 people. The participants were only allowed to see the clip twice in real-time before they were asked to spot the fakers. The results showed that there was a high level of agreement by participants in their classification of the players who intended to deceive and those who did not. Although participants were in agreement about which falls were faked, Dr Morris then needed to test that their judgements were correct.

He employed over 30 experienced amateur footballers to stage a scenario taken from a Football Association coaching manual. Attackers were instructed to dribble the ball past approaching defenders and then deceptively exaggerate the effects of a tackle to varying degrees. 50 observers were asked to judge if the attackers were faking and the level of exaggeration, if any.  The relationship between the intentions of the tackled player and the observer’s judgement of the player’s intentions was consistent.

Previous research at the university’s department of Psychology and Sport and Exercise Science focused on whether incidental factors such as the colour of clothing, crowd expectation, or a team’s or player’s reputation subconsciously affects a referee’s decision about cheating players.

“The result shows how, that regardless of factors such as team allegiance and players’ reputations, behaviour during a fall is a clear indication of the intention to deceive,” said Dr Morris.

The greatest asset that a referee has in relation to making the correct decision, is his proximity and ‘angle of view’ during diving incidents. This is why it is important for a referee to work hard in achieving creditable monitoring positions when attacking moves approach the penalty areas. The nearer you are, and the better view you have when making a decision, the more credibility you will have. The one important factor that always sells a decision on simulation, is where was the referee when he made the decision?

Factors referees need to consider before issuing a caution for simulation:

  • If you decide to caution, be very strong and swift in your action. No pussyfooting about here! Be strong, assertive and believe in your decision.
  • Once you have made the decision, stick with it and deal swiftly with any dissent by issuing a caution in record time! This will take you to the point of no return. Players will see that you have applied the correct punishment, and know that you will not be changing your mind. The more delay you have in issuing the caution, the more time players have to try and influence you.
  • Don’t make a meal of the occasion by humiliating the perpetrator. A swift caution clearly shows what you think of his antics. Further chastisement by you will only inflame the situation. Get the game restarted as soon as you can.
  • If you are in the centre circle catching up with play, forget to make that call!  There is no credibility in making a decision from inside the centre circle, involving a simulation act inside of the penalty area.
  • Be brave. You get nowhere as a referee if you lack courage. Simulation is no different to a foul.
  • Trust your instinct always, as it often proves to be correct, even though you believe that you have maybe not assimilated all of the facts.
  • Accept that you will get a few decisions wrong.

In 2009 Australia’s Football Federation (FFA) confirmed it would bring in new disciplinary measures that will allow A-League players to be retrospectively cited for simulation.  The A-League’s match review panel will go over games to find instances of simulation missed by the referee, where players have won penalties or had opponents sent off.  Players found guilty of diving can receive suspensions of up to two weeks.  The league will become only the second in world football, behind the Scottish Premier League, to impose such sanctions.

In a televised game, even close-up camera shots can be inconclusive when trying to identify simulation, but citing players on video evidence will certainly go a long away in making players accountable for their simulating actions.

Out of 10 incidents of simulation, there will probably be one occasion that was a genuine foul. If a referee can accept that he will occasionally penalise a player for simulation when no simulation has occurred, it will increase that referee’s endeavour to play his part in ridding the game of this blight.