By James Smith
Following recent games between Manchester United and Swansea, and Tottenham’s victory over Arsenal, the age-old debate over what constitutes simulation, and what is tactical play, has invaded the footballing world yet again. In the first game, Marcus Rashford won a penalty by going down on the edge of the six-yard box as keeper Lukas Fabianski rushed from his goal. Harry Kane’s penalty for Tottenham came after Arsenal centre-back Gabriel made contact with his leg whilst Kane raced into the box.
Firstly, before we address the boundary between cheating and cunning, I have no qualms in saying that Marcus Rashford dived. He clearly deceived the referee, having seen the goalkeeper closing him down, falling to the floor before any contact was made and then rolling on the floor as if he’d just been poleaxed. Given the FA rules on fair play state that simulations are “attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled” it is perfectly evident that he was guilty of simulation.
Harry Kane’s was perhaps blinded by more uncertainty. What is indubitably true is that there was contact between Gabriel and the Tottenham striker. There is an evident clip of Kane’s right ankle as he runs past, as well as a second contact as the Spurs player falls. However, the incident was by no means a definite penalty; it is likely that Kane could have kept running, regardless of how fast he was travelling. So did he ‘buy’ the penalty? He obviously pushes the ball past Gabriel, so there was no chance of losing the ball. Again, he goes down easily, and it seems from certain replays that Kane moves his right leg towards Gabriel to get a second contact and in some way legitimise the fall.
This is where the uncertainty lies. There was contact and therefore he was, as they say, entitled to go down. But given that the definition of simulation is the deception of the referee, can it be said that Kane duped the officials into thinking that he had been forced to the floor? This is certainly a decision based on what team you support; I cannot imagine there are too many Arsenal fans conceding that the incident was clear-cut or even the right call. Personally, I would say that Kane did not dive, so he certainly cannot be compared to Rashford in this regard. However, it seems that Kane was dishonest in going to ground after such minimal contact, and in this regard, he has deceived the referee to an extent. While not cheating, this seems somewhat unsporting and detrimental to the game given that the post-match debate focused much more on the refereeing decisions than the quality of the football played. Moreover, at such a high level of the game, it seems unnecessary that the players need to resort to such tactics to gain an advantage. Instead, one would hope that their sporting abilities would suffice.
So, what to do about it? Given the high pressured and instant nature of refereeing it would seem that little could be done to improve the standard of officiating, especially given that it’s the players deceiving them rather than bad decisions being made. This being said, it doesn’t mean that the officials cannot be given a helping hand by having a TV match official, as is common in rugby. Though some have said that this would slow the game and lead to long pauses, I don’t see that fans would begrudge a few moments of intermission if it meant that all decisions were closer to being correct. Further suggestions have been made that a post-match panel will review contentious decisions and order retrospective punishments where appropriate. This system is already employed in Scotland and the FA have announced that they are looking into the possibility of introducing the system in England. Though this may not have an immediate impact, there is certainly hope that the policy would act as a deterrent if punishments were severe enough, with bans rather than monetary penalties. However, it is certainly true to say that regardless of how many people analyse an incident, they might never all agree. As such, any scheme introduced will have some level of inefficiency, and so really it is up to the players to be more honest in their gameplay and act as true sportsmen, staying on their feet at all costs.