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Faking it: why football players feign injury

We all know that professional football players feign injury. Is it getting worse? Probably. Do we know why? Not really, but history suggests some plausible answers. The first thing to say is that feigning…

Feigning injury in football today has reached truly epidemic proportions. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

We all know that professional football players feign injury. Is it getting worse? Probably. Do we know why? Not really, but history suggests some plausible answers.

The first thing to say is that feigning injury in football today has reached truly epidemic proportions. A Wall Street Journal article reported 132 minutes of “writhing time” in just 32 World Cup games. Of the 302 separate instances of players appearing to be very seriously hurt, 293 of them were up and playing within seconds. Just nine were actually injured.

Germany’s Thomas Muller goes down ‘injured’ earlier in this World Cup.

Some defend footballers' theatrics by pointing to the speed of the modern game. This is sycophantic nonsense. As players have become more technically skilled over the decades, the game has slowed to a comparative walk.

European professional football of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, was played at a breathless, breakneck pace. By comparison to the chess-like build-ups we see today, the game was a frantic and chaotic romp, with players constantly colliding into each other without complaint or recrimination.

The first three pre-World War II World Cups, won by Uruguay and Italy (twice) were by all accounts brutal affairs. Players played on with serious injuries and referees afforded them precious little protection.

The biographies of players from past eras, both English-speaking and not, also suggest that concealing pain and injury was not only seen as more manly, but a tactical necessity. Players never wanted their opponents to suspect they were hurt or, worse, easily intimidated.

Things began to change when ruling bodies decided to improve the image of football by cracking down on acts of thuggery. It is difficult to point to an exact starting point but anxiety about serious injury to players seems to have risen in professional football in the 1970s and intensified in the 1980s.

The result of this was that the threshold for what was considered a “foul” – or illegal body contact – plummeted. By the beginning of the 2000s, it was almost impossible for players in the top leagues to engage in what would once have been considered a legitimate “50-50” scrap for the ball.

Footage of a 1930s-era football game between Belgium and the Netherlands.

Of course, possession of the ball does change regularly, but this is usually caused by an errant pass or a mis-controlled ball. Full-blooded, legal disputes over the ball between two players have largely disappeared from the game.

And this is the heart of the matter. Because it is now more than ever a possession game, being robbed of the ball by an opponent is one of the worst mistakes a player can make. And because it is more rare, it is all the more embarrassing when it happens.

In this situation, the histrionic behaviour players begins to look more rational. By screaming and hurling themselves onto the ground, players force referees to make a decision where one would previously not have been needed. And because of the low tolerance for rough play, the behaviour is usually rewarded with a free kick, no matter how slight the body contact.

Occasionally, though, referees decide not to award a free kick, at which point the “injured” player has a decision to make. Sometimes the recovery from death’s door is miraculously instantaneous because the player senses that his team actually needs him in the ensuing play.

Annoyingly often, though, the player decides that to discontinue the charade would amount to a confession of guilt, and so the performance goes on. Again, because of the safety-conscious mindset that prevails, this normally means that the game is stopped while the “injured” player is treated and often stretchered off the field before roaring back on to rejoin the fray.

The spread of this practice is bad for many reasons, not least of which is the extra unnecessary pressure it places on referees to make impossible on the spot judgements about whether a player is really hurt or not. It has also radically increased the incentives – and success rate – for players to time-waste and feign serious injury in order to have an opponent sent off.

As a result, send-offs in which the offending player has scarcely touched his opponent are now depressingly commonplace.

Is this the worst attempt at feigning injury of all time?

Most of all, feigning injury is an attempt to nullify the advantage an opponent gains from winning a contest for the ball. And so by reducing the tolerance for foul play, the game’s lawmakers have created a weirdly puritanical and hypocritical on-field culture in which exposing the misdeeds of others matters much more than one’s own ethical conduct.

What the melodrama of football players tells us is that banning one kind of behaviour almost always creates another. For every legalistic gain, there is a loss. In the case of football, an important loss has been the ability of referees to punish diving or “simulation”. Because feigning injury is now so rampant, football’s laws against it are surely the most regularly broken and yet under-enforced in all of sport.

As I see it, the only solutions are the use of video to retrospectively punish players who feign injury and the acceptance of the unfashionable ideas that not only can conflict and contestation be healthy, but that sometimes in life people are hurt and it is nobody’s fault.

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49 Comments sorted by

  1. Dean Biron

    PhD in Cultural Studies; Tutor in Criminology at Griffith University

    I would like to see someone do research into how much of that "writhing time" involves players whose team is in the lead on the scoreboard in the second half of the game ... I expect it would be up around 80% or more.

    One solution might be doubling the added time for injuries ... if a player spends one minute on the ground holding up play, then add on two at the end if he returns immediately to the game. Too often injury time does not truly reflect the time-wasting tactics employed, so no wonder…

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    1. terry lockwood

      maths/media/music/drama teacher

      In reply to Dean Biron

      I wonder if in women's soccer any writhing would be met by team-mates telling you to get up and stop acting like a boy?

      In Australian Rules, the game continues and trainers help the fallen player. If there is loss of consciousness or a broken leg or something, the game is stopped. Maybe soccer ref's decisions need to be quick and any free kicks transfered to a non-writhing team-mate.

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  2. Esther Rosenblaat

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Long term collision injuries are far more common in football and more likely to end a career than rugby or Aussie rules (broken leg).
    The feigning of injuries is a knock on effect/consequence from the poor enforcement of rules in the past, that allowed players to get seriously injured.
    Pretty sure the A-league brought in retrospective punishment, if a player dived to get a penalty.
    Regardless, football desperately needs video refereeing more than any other sport, because decisions have a far greater bearing on the game's outcome.

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    1. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      The A-League did bring in a retrospective punishment for diving but the rule is hardly used. The problem is that nobody really has the courage to tackle the issue. There is already much too much too video replay ruining sport. The weird thing is that the one place where it could do some good - cracking down on time wasting and injury faking - they don't use it.

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    2. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Michael Gard

      You dive, you get a yellow card.
      You feign injury that leads to the physio coming on, you go off the field and stay off for an allotted time.
      These rules were introduced years ago.
      Please try to be more factual in your statements.

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    3. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      Actually, this is not strictly true. But even if it were, the point is that these rules are clearly not working because the behaviour is getting more not less common. And how many players have dived at this world cup? Literally hundreds? How many have received yellow cards? I can't remember any although perhaps a handful.

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    4. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Michael Gard

      What happens if you cop a second yellow card for diving, when actual contact has been made? I've seen that before, because of the refs angle of view. You're off, you're team loses. How many millions has that cost your country?

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  3. Bill Kidd

    Project Manager at SA Government

    The difference between Soccer and State Of Origin Rugby League? Soccer is 90 minutes of players pretending to be injured, SOO is 80 minutes of players pretending they're not.

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  4. Bill Skinner

    Research Professor at University of South Australia

    A simple solution. "Writhe" for more than 30 seconds and the referee rules you are to be stretchered off, substituted, and can take no further part in the game.

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    1. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Bill Skinner

      Seems okay to me - it takes care of those who are really injured as well as the fakers. The referee doesn't have to determine whether they are really injured or faking it. And when they run out of substitutes, then the team has to play with fewer and fewer men.

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    2. Bill Skinner

      Research Professor at University of South Australia

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      I also seem to recall a referee making this call to a writhing player in the past (I believe it is within the scope of a referee's authority to do so still). The player immediately jumped up and disputed the call, upon which, the referee gave him a yellow card for faking.

      Where is that referee now? The sport could use him. Probably been blackballed.

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    3. Isha Deshmukh

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Bill Skinner

      That's actually quite a reasonable rule to bring into elite soccer matches. Give the player a period of time, in the case of faking an injury, to roll around as much as they like. After that, they will either be substituted in for by another team member and taken off the field. The ones who are injured will comply, but its highly likely that the players who are unnecessarily faking injuries for a free kick penalty, will object. After all, they obviously want to keep playing after the 'free kick' they believe they will get.

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  5. Esther Rosenblaat

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    The great thing about increased immigration coupled with Football Australia getting their act together is the increased awareness and support for the game. There is an inevitability about it. Wouldn't be surprised if A-League crowds surpass NRL within 5 years. And that's considering you are comparing a 4th tier league to a 1st tier league, on a world scale.
    Of course people who value biff/barge over skill won't change or understand why players feign injury. But there's more at stake.

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    1. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      Not sure what your point is here Esther. Soccer-football is the only major sport that has this injury-faking problem. There's nothing subtle about it. The interesting thing is that professional soccer-football IS full of heavy body contact which the players don't react to. The issue is that they react strategically at particular moments even when the contact is slight and this is bad for the game. There is nothing to not understand. Feigning injury is lame, stupid and boring to watch. It doesn't make football a better game. And yes, one of the great things about watching League and Union is NOT having to put up with all the nonsense the soccer players go on with. It's a shame, that's all. It's not like there is something so subtle about feigning injury that other sports fans don't understand, as you suggest. The problem is that feigning injury did not used to happen so much, and now it does. This is a bad thing. Simple.

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    2. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Michael Gard

      And what turns me off league and union is the lack of skill and intelligence. People weigh these things up I guess - does feigning injury offset the skill and intelligence in choosing to watch the sport? It's individual choice.
      What I will say is the evolution of the cerebrum in Homo Sapiens is towards the front lobes and in parallel not so much in muscular size and bone density.

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    3. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      No, not a case of weighing things up. I watch soccer, league, Union, AFL and enjoy them all. Each has its strengths and foibles. My article has nothing at all to do with comparing sports, something you seem rather too keen to do. My article is about soccer-football, a game I have played, watched and enjoyed for many years.

      And if, by some stretch of the imagination, you are suggesting that soccer people (players and commentators) are more intelligent than other football codes, then I'm afraid your guilty of the same stereotyping you seem to be accusing others of. There are PLENTY of numbskulls in soccer, as in all sports.

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    4. Dean Biron

      PhD in Cultural Studies; Tutor in Criminology at Griffith University

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      The phrase "Australians prefer ..." is an extremely unfortunate one, particularly in your dubious context - soccer has many unique traits which arise from its multicultural influences, as opposed to the mono-cultural utopia you seem to imagine you are living in ...

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    5. Joseph Ferguson

      Doctoral Candidate in Science Education at Deakin University

      In reply to Michael Gard

      Generally agree, although the props in Union tend to go down with a sore muscle to waste some time and get their energy back. More so the heavier Norther hemisphere teams.

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  6. Esther Rosenblaat

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Despite the over emphasis on simulation that articles like this give, football is incredibly popular in Australia.
    Sweeney Marketing Research has consistently shown the popularity of football is well ahead of rugby league and rugby union and on par with Aussie rules and cricket.
    The problem is that many Australians are rather insular and hence struggle to grasp (in denial about?) the fact that popularity for the SPORT is very different to the popularity of the LOCAL LEAGUE. The ongoing comparison of A-League stats to local league stats is prima facie evidence of this insularity (particularly for AFL, with its laughable reach). Many follow La Liga, Bundesliga, EPL, etc but don't follow the A-League, hence why the SPORT is so popular - people always want the highest standard.
    If the EPL was in Australia, it's ratings would thump AFL & NRL.

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    1. Cory Zanoni

      Community Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      Esther, this article isn't about football vs. other codes in Australia. It's about players faking injury. Keep your comments on-topic or they'll be removed.

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    2. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Michael Gard

      The relevance is that people overemphasise the feigning to be dismissive of the sport. I am pointing out its overwhelming popularity in spite of this.
      The common impetus for people overemphasising the feigning is really to show 'my sport is better than yours' - despite how they like to 'word' things. It goes back to the mentality/psychology of the culture. Australians are very insular in this regard.
      I have consistently seen far worse collision injuries in football than the eggball codes. Yes they have more collisions, but the worst occur in football.
      The problem is, due to the 'neandertal' mentality, violent contact is valued by so many Australians and because it doesn't happen often enough in football, it is derided and hence feigning is overemphasised and given too much attention.
      I find it a little disappointing that I have to spell this out to join the dots........

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    3. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      I understand your argument Esther. I just disagree with it. One can appreciate the skill of soccer and the physical contact of league and union at the same time. In fact, the ability to see the beauty in each of them would seem to me to be the most enlightened attitude. Soccer's popularity, by the way, doesn't prove anything. So what if it's the most popular sport in the world? What does this prove? In short, I just think the "Australian's don't understand soccer" is about 20 years out of date. We've grown up now. We understand soccer-football as well as anyone, and it is precisely because of this - and because we have something to compare it against, something many other countries can't do so easily - that we are able to intelligently discuss the things about soccer-football we don't like. Blindly declaring that soccer football is the best and that that's the end of the matter does not seem a very helpful position to take. There is none so blind is that zealot.

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    4. David Briggs

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      Esther
      Your joining of the dots only serves to show your personal bias which colours your comments. The article seeks to explore reasons for feigning injury and to explore potential rule changes to eradicate or reduce this behaviour, which aside from looking ridiculous and detracting from the game, is cheating.
      Its not about IQ, or insularity. Its about improving on field conduct to make the game a fairer and even more beautiful sport.

      I enjoy the skills on display in soccer and am not a big Rugby League fan, but I do find the blatant feigning of injuries a significant blight on soccer, as clearly many others do.

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    5. Ron Purss

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Esther Rosenblaat

      Congrats Esther. You have successfully derailed the conversation. Feel better now?

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    6. In reply to Ron Purss

      Comment removed by moderator.

    7. Dean Biron

      PhD in Cultural Studies; Tutor in Criminology at Griffith University

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Well if "booming" means a constant presence in the media on the back of player malfeasance, including on and off field violence, criminality and drug abuse, then you are no doubt right. Perhaps Esther is just like many other soccer-loving folk who take umbrage at being lectured on the problems in that sport by people who seem oblivious to the arguably much more serious issues engulfing their own ...

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    8. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Dean Biron

      "Perhaps Esther is just like many other soccer-loving folk who take umbrage at being lectured on the problems in that sport by people who seem oblivious to the arguably much more serious issues engulfing their own ..."

      Yes that would be fair enough, considering yet another rape charge has been brought against an eggballer today and another was sacked by his club yesterday.

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  7. Guido Tresoldi

    Librarian

    Why any article on soccer eventually turns into code vs code arguments? Let's go back to topic. In some countries the ability of an attacker to (using a basketball term) 'draw a foul' is seen as a plus. It is a cynical exercise which the referees need to be aware of. It is a difficult subject because if there is contact with the player it can result in a free kick etc.

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  8. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    More than ten seconds writhing, without clear signs of blood or bone protruding from a break, and the player should be obliged to continue for another three minutes in full 'agony' while extolling his level of pain, the level of calumny that caused it, and of the utter despondency of his approaching death - in full Shakespearian prose. Then he should, finally, 'die', at which point the crowd applause or boos be measured electronically to determine his fate - ignominious removal stage left or calls for an encore and the presentation of bunches of flowers.

    Seriously, I was so turned off by this behaviour in the Brazil - Chile game, I haven't bothered to watch any football since. Tossers.

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    1. Michael Gard

      Senior Research Fellow, School of Education at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Love your work Ben. At last a sensible suggestion. I'm very attracted to the idea of players having to explain their pain. I mean, apart from anything else, one is shocked by how quickly the players go from approaching death to kissing and making up with the bloke who did it. Where is the "owning" of one's pain and suffering? At least when Roy Keane kicked someone, they stayed kicked and he didn't beg for forgiveness afterwards.

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    2. Esther Rosenblaat

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Michael Gard

      Interesting that you are comfortable with Roy Keane's violence.

      Do you also applaud Kevin Muscat wrecking Matty Holmes career?

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    3. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Like it, Ben. Perhaps their full Shakespearian "prose" (is it?), might also have to be set to music and over the loudspeakers for all to hear.

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  9. Rex Gibbs

    Engineer/Director

    The 1930's Belgian Soccer match film shows everything that is important.. It shows a game with contests for possession and excellent skills instead of the boring game soccer has become. Now with a possession game the Penalty and the free kick are so valuable in the absence of the contests and speed that the reward for cheating by diving and writhing is too high. The Penalty shootout to decide the outcome is another blight. A Soccer - I played and enjoyed the game but now that it has become football - or diveball it has changed to a boring disgrace or game for under 12's.

    Although I must say that Women's Soccer seems not to suffer the same blight.

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    1. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Debra Joan Smith

      I have now had three separate comments on this topic removed by the TC so it just proves how hyper sensitive some soccer fans are to any criticisym of their sport. Some comments just cut to close to the grain when they show the game just does not match the chlldish hype and superalitives..

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    2. Cory Zanoni

      Community Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Your comments have been removed because they're off-topic. If you'd like to argue with Esther about "soccer vs other sports in Australia" you're welcome to do it elsewhere.

      If you'd like to comment about the article, which, somewhat ironically, is a criticism of soccer, you're welcome to do so here.

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    3. Debra Joan Smith

      Account Executive

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      WOW Terry!
      My comment was NOT removed. I, a non soccer fan but the mother of 5 human beings have been watching international soccer out of curiosity and I TRULY feel that grown men taking obvious dives is EMBARASSING. It should be embarrassing to EVERY human being who lives in a society that hopes to help children grow to make a contribution.

      Hypersensitive? Time for some people to GROW UP and play fair.

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  10. Comment removed by moderator.

  11. Stjepan Bosnjak

    logged in via Facebook

    Diving started in the 1970s. I blame the Baby Boomer generation. Their selfish, self absorbed materialistic attitudes have destroyed almost everything else, it's little wonder no one has cottoned on to this.

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    1. Debra Joan Smith

      Account Executive

      In reply to Stjepan Bosnjak

      Well, that is helpful. Blaming your parents is SOOOOOOOOOOOOO lame.

      A whole generation can use this excuse as can every generation who ever had parents.

      People in every generation have the same strengths and faults. NOW WHAT? The baby boomers do not seem to be the ones playing now.

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