Wolverhampton Wanderers all but ended the 2019-20 Premier League title race on Friday with a stunning victory over Manchester City. They came back from two goals down to win 3-2 on Matt Doherty’s 89th-minute winner. It was a lovely goal befitting of a thunderous second half.
But it was enabled by Raul Jimenez’s equalizer seven minutes earlier ... which was enabled by Adama Traore’s assist ... which was enabled by Traore’s bullying of Man City defender Benjamin Mendy ... and by Mendy’s critical error: He didn’t think to dive, or chose not to.
Why Soccer Players Dive, exhibit 34389238:— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) December 27, 2019
If Mendy falls on his face here, ref 100% whistles for a foul on Traore pic.twitter.com/OPMK9nmVn5
Traore, the closest thing the English Premier League has to a tank, came rumbling into Mendy’s back. All the City left back had to do was throw himself to the ground. The referee would’ve whistled for a foul. City, leading 2-1, would’ve been granted a reprieve. How do we know?
Because every weekend around the world, in similar situations, under one-tenth of the contact and force that Mendy tried to repel, dozens of soccer players crumple to the ground in search of a foul. And almost invariably, referees give it to them.
The contact is often minimal, the embellishment blatant. Opponents and fans moan. They scream obscenities at the flopper. They accuse him of being a cheat.
But floppers often have legitimate reasons. Chief among them: Refs judge reactions to contact as much as they do the contact itself. Fouls that impede a player but don’t send him tumbling to the turf often go unpenalized. Players, therefore, feel a need to take matters into their own hands. To get theatrical. To dive.
The 82nd minute of Friday’s game brought the perfect example. Mendy didn’t even have to dive. He merely had to not attempt to resist Traore’s force. He had to collapse under it, just like 99 percent of humans would have.
But he didn’t. So he’s the scapegoat. And his goat status perfectly represents the problem, one I wrote about at length last summer. It’s as much a refereeing problem as anything. The soccer world loathes cheats and craves honesty. But the game’s practical incentives don’t line up with those desires. It rewards cheats and penalizes honesty, as it did on Friday. Why, then, should any divers change their ways?
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