Such is the spirit with which international football matches now get played that several newspapers have added an innovative garnish to their World Cup reporting. As well as the lists of qualifying teams and rosters of leading goal scorers, one can now survey league tables of unsporting behaviour. Thus I learn that in the three weeks up to the quarter-finals, Italy headed the table for Diving with a phenomenal 25 attempts (Mexico second with 20), but were vastly outstripped by Paraguay when it came to Faking Injury. Cristiano Ronaldo's winked approbation at Wayne Rooney's sending off yesterday will doubtless shoot him up the Individual Shameless Guile rankings. As for Tantrums, that vital part of the sportsman's repertoire, France and the Netherlands tied for the top spot with 16, with England a creditable fifth.
Press and fan reaction to last week's cauldron of ungentlemanly behaviour - the Portugal-Netherlands second-round tie resembled a hand of whist, so rapid was the turnover in cards - exemplified the odd dualism that affects modern incarnations of the beautiful game. On the one hand, winning is everything; by his own admission, Sven Goran Eriksson wouldn't have minded if a victory were achieved with half the opposing team carried off on stretchers. On the other, most spectators are still deeply exercised by the old Corinthian notions of fair play: hence the outrage when Thierry Henry, admittedly clattered into by a Spanish defender, collapsed with his hands clasped round his unstricken head.
This raises a question which Fifa, having spent 20 years subduing violent conduct on the pitch, are only now beginning to confront. How do you stop players deceiving the referee? The most obvious solution is technology. A fourth official eagerly scanning a video wind-back of the alleged Henry assault could have given the referee the facts of the case, the argument runs. On the debit side, this kind of monitoring takes time. Football needs an unencumbered flow: the thought of some zealous video vigilante dashing on to the pitch several minutes after an offence has been committed, is too horrible to contemplate.
Another solution is to alter the laws of the game so as to reduce the need for gamesmanship, for example, to abolish penalty kicks. Naturally a defender who committed a foul inside his own penalty area could still be punished, even to the extent of being sent off, if the offence were serious enough. The great benefit would be to curb the propensity of attacking players to fall over as soon as they get a sight of goal while reassuring defenders who fear that, in the current hair-trigger atmosphere, a challenge of any kind will be penalised.
From the angle of the game and its history, all this is terrible nonsense. The idea of a player's every movement around the pitch being trailed by some eye in the sky to prevent his feigning injury! Penalties (don't we know it) are one of the sport's most dramatic elements: take them away and you diminish it as a spectacle.
In the end, though, the behavioural step-up that football requires will have to be accomplished by footballers, not legislators. As a corporal in the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell was once asked how he dealt with soldiers who declined to obey his commands - this in a volunteer army run on strict egalitarian principles. Orwell replied that, ultimately, you could only appeal to their "better nature". Well, you divers and injury-feigners, I'm appealing to your better nature. In its absence, video cameras and ripped-up rule-books will make a poor substitute.Reuse content