The former Republic of Ireland international and football pundit Niall Quinn delivered on television this week a worryingly detached response to an incident in the Champions' League that saw Zinedine Zidane engineer a free-kick from which Real Madrid scored the only goal of their home tie against Juventus.
The subsequent slow-motion replays proved clearly that no contact had been made with Zidane, a fact that made the vigorous protests of Juventus understandable. When the Sky presenter, Richard Keys, pointed this out, adding that such antics should surely be beneath a player of Zidane's stature, Quinn's reaction was that diving to win free-kicks and penalties has become part of the game and very little can be done about it.
That particular bill of goods has never sold here. It has, indeed, become a convention personally to condemn behaviour that spoils the concept of sport and would not have been tolerated by past generations.
Unfortunately, the issue of histrionics in sport, especially football, grows and grows with no more than a muted response from the authorities, employers and fellow toilers in this dubious trade. People who argue that football has improved no end since action was taken against the perpetrators of pain and suffering conveniently overlook the insidious spread of conduct unbecoming to a sports performer.
Recently, the England left-back, Ashley Cole, attempted to persuade the referee, Graham Poll, that he had been fouled in the penalty area during the opening minutes of a bristling encounter between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury. Poll saw the incident for what it was but elected to take no action against Cole, probably on the grounds that it would have served no useful purpose. This was loose thinking on his part.
A sneaky conclusion, foolishly made public by Glenn Hoddle when he selected Michael Owen for England, was that apart from his prowess in front of goal Owen would improve the chances of convincing referees that sins had been committed against him. There is little angelic about past managers, but I cannot imagine that such a furtive ploy would have occurred to them.
Generally, the impression you get is that sports performers are moving further and further away from the standards of comportment set by their predecessors. In fact, the burning question today is, just how childish can they get?
Some of these thoughts were brought to mind last week at a party to celebrate the 70th birthday of the former Tottenham Hotspur and Wales winger Cliff Jones. There were a number of players from Jones's era present and, speaking euphemistically, they could all look after themselves in play. In one or two cases they sometimes got into trouble, but none would have given a moment's thought to antics that are now commonplace.
Jones himself recalled that the great Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson, would not tolerate the hounding of officials. "Bill would come down hard on that," he said. "His argument was that we would make more mistakes than the referee and linesmen. As for diving, it never crossed my mind. The first thought in my mind was to stay on my feet. It really upsets me when I see players going to ground when they've hardly been touched."
George Cohen, once of Fulham, and a member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team, expressed a similar point of view.
"Sometimes I came up against foreign players who went down rather too easily but in the main there was very little of what we see today. I've been asked whether it is something to do with the great number of players who have come here from abroad, a part of their football cultures. I don't know. I do know that the players of my day were brought up differently. It sounds corny, I know, but we were prepared to take knocks as well as give them and it seemed daft to go around mouthing off at opponents."
In directing match officials to come down harshly on illegal acts of dispossession, in requiring them to distinguish immediately between the accidental lunge and the intentional clatter, the football authorities have left openings that actors exploit to their advantage.
We are covering here a modern aspect of football that is beyond any discernible defence, one the Professional Footballers' Association should feel obliged to take up with its members. Surely it cannot be that football is unsure of its ability to identify the cheats and act accordingly.
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