The incident leading to Portugal defender Pepe’s red-card against Germany at the World Cup Finals has again drawn the issue of “play-acting” into sharp focus.
With the Germans 2-0 up and comfortably heading for half-time, attacking-midfielder Thomas Müller, 24, was felled by a stray finger to his upper lip whilst competing for the ball with Pepe.
In a contact sport, the tussle appeared to be innocuous, prompting questions as to how such a challenge could topple an international athlete, possessing strength and balance in abundance. Whilst the flailing finger which caught Müller would perhaps have caused a man to spill his beer in a crowded bar, it certainly would not have brought him to his knees.
Pepe clearly felt that Müller had acted theatrically in an attempt to influence the referee. As the Bayern Munich man sat on the floor checking his dentistry, Pepe first berated, then clashed heads with Müller; in effect taking the official’s decision away from him. The reaction and head-butt left the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic with no option but to dismiss the Real Madrid defender for violent conduct.
Whilst Pepe’s conduct may warrant the 3 match-ban which could end his tournament,Thomas Müller survived without a caution and went on to score a hat-trick in an impressive 4-0 victory for the Germans. The actions of the 2010 Golden Boot winner Müller, marred a fine individual performance which brings his overall scoring record to 8 goals in 7 World Cup games. Germany were impressive and looked to be at their ominous best. Credit must go to coach Joachim Löw and die Mannschaft who underlined their potential to become world champions for a fourth time after an 18 year wait for a tournament victory going back to Euro ’96.
The clash between Brazillian-born Pepe and Müller is the latest in a long line of instances where players have apparently feigned injury in order to influence referees and the course of a match; a famous example being current USA coach and former Germany striker, Jurgen Klinsmann’s dive in the 1990 World Cup Final.
Players and officials now seem paralysed to act, dismissively accepting play-acting as “part of the game.” Yet football’s rules state clearly that any player who “attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation)” must be booked for unsporting behaviour. Why then does football seemingly accept dishonest behavior?
With two sides to every story, establishing whether a player intended to manipulate match officials, or was experiencing genuine pain, is a subjective question and many officials seem unwilling to pass judgement based on a single view of an incident.
Whilst other sports have seen similar issues, few can compare to football’s pandemic problem of play-acting. In Rugby Union, the “Bloodgate” scandal was dealt with decisively by the sport’s authorities, sending a clear message about what behavior was acceptable in the sport and how far they would move to protect the game’s legitimacy.
FIFA has long faced calls to make a similar stand, possibly using video evidence to act retrospectively against players who feign injury. Australia’s A-League and the USA’s MLS have introduced disciplinary committees, levying fines and issuing suspensions to curb diving and play-acting.
Views on simulation differ. Some supporters happily applaud the cunning trickery of any player clever enough to provide his team with an advantage. Football is a high-stakes game. Players and fans want to win. Sometimes ethics and morals become blurred.
More seriously than the erroneous award of penalties and red-cards, there is a growing concern that the “boy has cried wolf” far too often; and that feigning injury could put players with serious underlying medical issues in jeopardy. Traditions such as kicking the ball out of play for an injured player to receive treatment are no longer expected to be observed and English referee Howard Webb, who had to deal with the on-pitch cardiac arrest of Fabrice Muamba; has stressed the importance of curbing simulation in sport.
Without necessary deterrents, the potential payoffs currently outweigh the likely costs of unsporting behaviour, and make play-acting an attractive tactic. FIFA, with well documented challenges to their own reputation, and football’s regional governing bodies cannot allow the situation to continue unabated and for the good of the game, must make tackling the issue a priority.
What steps can FIFA take to tackle the issue of play-acting and simulation in football?