Friday, June 20, 2008

At Least Boxers Get Paid To Do It

I saw something so unexpected during yesterday's Euro 2008 quarterfinal match between Germany and Portugal that I had to rewind the broadcast and watch it again to make sure. A soccer player was fouled and drew a free kick without writhing around the ground like he'd been hit on the knee with a club.

The player was Germany's Michael Ballack, who drew a foul early in the match. He didn't let out an anguished scream like he was auditioning for the role of Stanley Kowalski. His face didn't contort into a grotesque grimace as if he'd done a stunt on Jackass. He just got up off the ground and went about his business, and let the officials go about theirs.

Of all the reasons why Americans have supposedly failed to embrace the world's game, the one that resonates the most with me is distaste for all the "diving" that goes on -- exaggerating the effect of contact with another player in the hopes of getting the refs to call a foul on that player. Participants in the major U.S. professional sports tend to go out of their way to look like they're NOT in pain, yet their footballing counterparts seem to be polar opposites.

In the NBA they have a similar practice known as "flopping," and fans dislike it so much that the league is taking steps to eliminate it. Is it just a coincidence that some of the players most closely associated with this tactic are natives of Europe (Vlade Divac) or South America (Manu Ginobili, Anderson Varejao), where soccer is the number one sport?

What's really mystifying to me is how inconsistent diving is with other attributes commonly asssociated with soccer players like toughness and stamina. I've seen guys take free kicks right in the face from point-blank range and shake them off without missing a beat. One of the stats I've enjoyed seeing during the UEFA broadcasts is the amount of distance covered by players during the course of a match, which regularly exceeds six miles. These guys can do that stuff, but if someone breathes on them they act like they've been shot in the stomach with a cannonball?

I have to wonder if the refs aren't somewhat culpable in this practice. Players probably wouldn't do it if it didn't yield the desired outcome, right? Maybe the size of the pitch makes players feel they have to embellish to a Shatner-esque degree to get the attention of an official who may be 50 yards away. It's amazing how quickly they spring back up when their histrionics DON'T get the desired results and play moves quickly past them, though.

So here's the deal, soccer players. As long as a golfer is regarded as tougher than the lot of you, accept your status on the same tier as bass fishing and bowling in this country's sports heirarchy. Get some guys with the stoicism of Patrick Swayze getting stitched up in Roadhouse, and you may earn a little more respect from the American viewing public.

ARRGHHH! Typing cramp! I don't think I can fini

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