Every weekend, English football at the top level produces at least one particularly striking image – be it a great goal, a wonderful save, a nasty foul, an unseemly scrap, an incandescent manager or a card-brandishing referee – that dominates most of the back pages on the Monday morning and that those of us still in thrall to the game, despite its manifold flaws, continue to talk about well into the following week. By the following Saturday, the image has faded, ready for a new one to take its place. Thus the season passes.
Today, however, that is not the case. The image of Eduardo da Silva's leg splintering, of his fellow Arsenal players gasping in shock, of an oxygen mask being clamped over his face as he was carried off the field of play – play! – will endure to the end of this season and beyond. Yet it is not the only image from last weekend that is stuck fast in my mind. There is another, seemingly trivial by comparison and yet almost as troubling in its own way. I am not aware of anyone having written or really spoken about it, but I can't stop feeling sickened by it. It is the image of Chelsea's Didier Drogba, just outside the Tottenham penalty area in the Carling Cup Final, falling to the Wembley turf with his back dramatically arched, like an Apache brave copping a cavalry bullet in a 1950s B-western.
It wasn't a dive in the usual footballing sense of the word, in that Drogba was not pretending to have been fouled when he hadn't been. But he was feigning injury in a transparently theatrical way, and that he made an immediate "recovery", took the free-kick he had won and scored from it, added considerable insult to that feigned injury. It was an insult to football in general, and, albeit unwittingly, to the hospitalised Eduardo in particular.
Some will say that I am making too much of this, just as Drogba did. But his over-reaction deserves mine. Drogba is not the only top footballer who habitually makes an eight-course banquet of a relatively innocuous foul – Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas did it at Goodison Park earlier this season, securing a red card and a ban for his good friend Mikel Arteta – but he was the only one who did it while the football world was still reeling over what had happened the previous day, and he did it in an especially repugnant manner, simulating the reaction of a man who had been shot, rather than tripped up.
I suppose, in a league table of crimes against football, a melodramatic response to being fouled is less worthy of excoriation than the pretence of having being fouled. But what happened to Eduardo blurs the distinction. Simulation is cheating, whatever the context, and referees should be encouraged to book fouled players for over-reaction. Otherwise they might as well hold up perfect 10s for artistic merit.
One of the reasons why Drogba's theatrics made such an impact on me was that it had already occurred to me, after seeing Eduardo's response to Martin Taylor's challenge, that the badly injured player rarely goes down in spectacular fashion. Eduardo did not writhe in agony on the turf; there was no arching of the back as he fell. He sat up and looked at his leg, then lay still. Similarly, when Michael Owen sustained serious anterior cruciate ligament damage in the 2006 World Cup, after playing against Sweden for 51 seconds, he crawled uncertainly off the pitch, almost regressing to babyhood.
More often than not there seems to be a correlation: the more dramatic the reaction, the less likelihood of career-threatening injury. I can't think of anyone who has fallen to the ground like Drogba did last Sunday and been genuinely damaged. Even the Apache brave was only pretending. Hell, he wasn't even a real Apache brave, but a jobbing extra from Sacramento.
So, if football's administrators are to turn the Eduardo injury to any kind of communal advantage, they need to bracket it with Drogba's preposterous antics and decree that to simulate injury in an attempt to win a free-kick or penalty, or to get an opposing player sent off, is punishable not with a fine, and not just with a ban, but with the deduction of, say, half a point. Twice, and the team loses a point. A tribunal should view every match and issue these punishments retrospectively, which would not undermine the referee's authority, but give him a more honest game to officiate.
Needless to add, there is as much chance of this happening as there is of Drogba staying on his feet when he feels a clip from behind. It doesn't need match-fixing and bungs to scar the Beautiful Game, just players with contempt for the rules. That the most contemptuous players are often also the best players is as ironic as Martin Taylor's reputation as one of football's most honest pros.Reuse content