By David Lynch
There was an inevitability to the severity of the backlash following Luis Suarez’s latest dive for Liverpool last week.
Last Sunday, the Uruguayan threw himself to the ground, flaying his arms and whipping his head back in trademark fashion, despite an absence of contact from the three Stoke players surrounding him in the penalty box.
Thankfully, referee Lee Mason was unmoved by that act of blatant cheating, meaning the Potters came away from Anfield with the point which their defensive solidarity had entirely merited.
Rather unfortunately for Suarez, the official’s full-time whistle marked not just the end of the game, but the beginning of an international break – a period in which news stories are scarce in the world of football. There were several people willing to fill the empty agenda, all providing views of varying extremes on the striker’s latest act of simulation but all agreeing on one thing: Suarez is a cheat.
Stoke boss Tony Pulis was keen to get the ball rolling, slamming Suarez’s behaviour as “embarrassing” after the game and calling for a three-match ban to be meted out. He was later joined by Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce, who took time out of displaying the impartiality his role requires in order to single out the former Ajax man’s antics as “a cancer within the game”.
Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny, a player entirely unrelated to the incident itself, became the latest outraged observer to pass comment, branding Suarez “a cheat” when asked a fairly innocuous question about which Premier League forward is hardest to face.
These judgements were of course eagerly passed down without context, the sort of quotable soundbite perfectly formed to fill the information chasm over the international break. But, taking into account the difficult nature of the subject, none were fair assessments of the man at the centre of the row.
Pulis’ contribution was key to setting the tone. The Welshman cleverly walked away from reporters in the middle of his post-match press conference, moments after slamming Suarez but just before the journalists present could elicit his views on Robert Huth’s stamp on the 25-year-old’s chest early in the match.
Such perspective is surely key when assessing the reasons behind the dive. Would the Uruguayan have needed to resort to such dramatics had he faced 10 men from just five minutes into the match? Were Stoke’s physical tactics and the referee’s failure to adequately combat them another contributory factor?
Regardless, it is disturbing to see that diving has become the de facto topic of discussion following a match in which an act of physical assault went unpunished. The player himself may also feel concerned that it is his dive, and not the two which fellow Premier League superstar Gareth Bale committed on the same afternoon, which has garnered the most attention.
Quite simply, what makes these players so different?
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s declaration that “the boy Suarez dives all over the place” back in October 2011 the Liverpool striker has found it increasingly difficult to win a penalty, even in the case of being karate chopped (genuinely) in the box, as occurred against Norwich recently. The likes of Bale, and those in Ferguson’s own flock such as Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck, have seemingly not encountered such trouble, despite several questionable spot-kick claims over that period.
Former England striker Michael Owen’s recent declaration that foreign players have encouraged an increase in diving in the Premier League perhaps provides insight as to why. Owen, now with Stoke, told the BBC: “It’s worse than 10 years ago with the influence of players coming from South America, Spain and Italy,” before going on to admit he had gone down under minimal contact during the 1998 World Cup. Yes, 14 years ago.
That there was zero foreign influence in the Glenn Hoddle-managed England squad back then exposes his claims for what they are – a further attempt by English football to disassociate itself from any form of gamesmanship. Of course, this is the nation which gave the world the phrase “he’s not that type of player”, before rarely applying that quote to our friends from further afield.
It is far easier to apportion blame to the likes of Suarez, a South American whose face fits the profile of a sneaky cheat, such is the unfortunate sneer seemingly permanently etched upon his face. It is a tag which certain sections of the media have gleefully exploited and one which the man himself has admittedly done little to shake off.
And, in a sense, that is right. His behaviour should not be excused, or be subject to less scrutiny than it currently is, but perhaps it would all feel a bit fairer if his peers were treated in the same way. To paraphrase George Orwell: Sometimes it seems that all players are equal, but some are more equal than others.
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