Ashes to Ashes, We All Fall Down

By Andrew Jordan

The embellishment of contact is not unique to the game of soccer. In almost any sport where it is applicable, especially basketball, players will go to great lengths to influence the referees’ decisions—decisions that can easily change the outcome of the game. In fact, a common criticism of our beloved Duke Men’s Basketball program is that our players have flop too often. However, let’s take a step back. In basketball, it is referred to as “flopping” and is universally frowned upon as being a cheap and cowardly way to gain the advantage. Yet in soccer, it is rarely referred to as flopping or even “diving”. In soccer, they refer to flopping as simulation.

Simulation. Calling flopping “simulation” makes it sound like it is something we all should be doing. Like it’s a valuable tactic that should be employed as often as the through ball or the give-and-go. I may never understand what it means to represent my country in a World Cup and win millions of dollars, but I definitely do understand what flopping, or simulation, really is. It is pure deception. It is the last resort after one realizes that their own skills may not be enough to get the job done. And the game of soccer is the perfect culture medium for this virus to develop. Unlike basketball and football, the head referee isn’t going to jog over to the sidelines to pore over an instant replay tape—partly because of all the running that would involve. Once the call is made, it is made. Once the card is removed from his pocket, once his arm is up and pointing like a laser towards the dreaded penalty spot, there is no going back. There are no challenged plays, no official reviews. All it takes is a golden opportunity, some amateur acting skills, and an unquenchable desire to win.

A prime example of simulation is when Arjen Robben, a world-renowned Dutch winger swan dove in the penalty box in the 91st minute of the Netherland’s World Cup match against Mexico in 2014. I will concede that yes there was contact between Robben and the Mexican defender’s foot—barely. However, I find it very hard to believe that Robben, renowned for his pace, strength, and skill, would be sent flailing to the ground after such little contact. In fact, if one examines the replay, it is evident that Robben makes no attempt to regain his footing after the challenge. He kicks his legs out and throws his arms back, removing any chance of him landing on his feet. The referee rewarded his performance with a game-winning penalty kick and a yellow card to the defender, Rafael Marquez. Game over. Curtain call.

The media had mixed feelings about the incident. However, most have said that Marquez did indeed foul Robben. According to the rules of the game there was contact meaning that there was a foul. But the referee was in no position to have seen that contact. He was far behind the play and there were probably a couple players in his line of sight. He was, however, in position to see the flop—I mean simulation. If I was in his position, I might have made that call as well. It would be disastrous for him to take an international powerhouse like the Dutch out of the running after such a performance. On the other hand, soccer is a contact sport and games should not be thrown away because of a little foot contact and a lot of augmentation. Defenders shouldn’t have to be afraid to make a play because they think the ref will book them after their opponent goes to the ground.

At the end of the day, there was a little bit of contact. But did Robben really have to put on a Broadway production to make sure the ref blew the whistle? That’s the golden question, I guess. Who am I kidding, though? I would fake my own death for the opportunity to win $35 million and international stardom.

Opinions on the play from new sources: