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World Cup mystery solved: Why soccer players dive, as told by the master of the ‘dark arts’

“I thought of it as a skill set,” says, Alejandro Moreno, who’s been labeled a “cheater” and a stain on soccer.

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DOHA, Qatar — Alejandro Moreno has been labeled a “cheater” and a stain on soccer. He, like hundreds of other players who tend to fling themselves to the ground, has been branded a “diver” and a “flopper,” and had expletives hurled his way. He could preach for hours about why the criticism reeks of double standards, and at times racial bias, but we’ll get to that — for now, class is in session.

“I thought of it as a skill set,” Moreno, a former Venezuelan international and 11-year pro, says of soccer’s most fiercely derided tactic. Whether you call it diving or “drawing fouls,” as he euphemistically does, it’s “an art form.”

It is widely viewed as immoral, and Moreno, a master of the “dark arts,” would like to clarify: He does not condone the outright inventing of contact and conning of referees. But soccer, he argues, is “a morally flawed game, where players will do whatever is necessary to win.” They will shirt-pull and elbow and forearm-shiver. Defenders will do all sorts of illicit things that impede attacking players but don’t get penalized — unless, that is, the attacking player embellishes the impact of the shirt-pull, or feels a tap on the shin and theatrically tumbles to the turf.

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“When a defender has taken the advantage away, maybe by a nudge, a push, a grab, slight hold — now you’re off balance; now, whatever advantage you had, it’s gone,” Moreno explains. “And so what are you supposed to do?

“You’re encouraged to fight through a challenge. But,” he continues, passion bubbling in his voice, “the way I see it is, if you’re gonna touch me, if you’re gonna nudge me, if you’re gonna push me, and you’re gonna take my advantage away? I have a recourse. And my recourse is, I’m gonna sell that contact, and I’m gonna make sure that I get a call out of it.”

This, above all, is the reason that soccer players flop and flail. Their diving not only works; at times, it’s necessary. Enduring contact downplays the severity of it — but the contact still mitigates the potential of an attack. Diving, on the other hand, is often a player’s only alarm bell, a means to alert refs to the true severity.

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In situations that provoke uncertainty, refs tend to use a player’s reaction, their fall or lack thereof, as a hint. And this tendency, Moreno argues, implicitly tells players: “If you wanna get this call, you’re gonna have to go down.”

A couple months ago, Jose Mourinho made the same point. After one of his Roma players stayed up and didn’t get a call, the Portuguese manager ranted: “I have to change my advice to my players. I have to tell them, ‘Don’t try to stay on your feet, don’t play the ball, be a clown the way many who dive like they’re in a swimming pool do in this league.’ Because that is evidently how you get penalties.”

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Moreno, though, would supplement that advice: “You sell the call without overselling the call,” he says. “And that’s where it becomes an art form.”

You don’t dive like you’re at a swimming pool. “You see the guys that throw their arms up in the air, and are rolling around,” Moreno says. “That’s not gonna get it done.” He advocates for a “natural fall” that, over time, for masters of the dark arts, becomes instinctive — but “it’s a natural fall because you’ve been impeded, not a natural fall because you’re being shot,” he notes.

“You don’t need to throw your arms up in the air. You don’t need to make the noise,” he says, adopting a professorial tone. “All of that takes the reality factor out of the challenge.” The goal, he says, is to “draw enough attention to it to where now you put doubt in the referee’s mind. Now, in that split-second, he’s gotta be able to figure out, did I see what I think I saw? And if you’ve done that, if you’ve created that doubt, then I think you’ve done your job.”

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And if you don’t? “If you exaggerate and the referee deems that you have done so? That’s on you as a player for not being able to execute an art form the way you should,” Moreno scolds.

“If people were to attend my diving camp,” he jokes, “they’d be better at it.”

Mexico's Alexis Vega and Argentina's Gonzalo Montiel collide during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Mexico’s Alexis Vega and Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel collide during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Moreno: Diving ‘is all over the game’

The reason Moreno feels so comfortable talking about and even extolling such a taboo tactic is that, well, he doesn’t think it should be so taboo. Why, he wonders, is flopping so reviled but cynical fouls that chop down counterattacks aren’t? Why is flopping unethical, but appealing for a corner after the ball blatantly touched your own foot isn’t?

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“We seem to be able to separate diving as a form of cheating,” he says. “But the elbow the defender throws, apparently that’s not cheating. Or the grabbing of the jersey, that’s not cheating.”

The collective recoiling of soccer purists has led leagues, including MLS and the English Premier League, to fine and suspend players for diving. Moreno believes it represents a double-standard, wherein other forms of dishonesty or illegality are accepted as “part of the game,” yet diving isn’t.

“If you start paying attention to everything that happens on the field, you can hang on to very many different things, and say, ‘well that seems wrong; well that’s not right,’” he says in a weasely voice, chiding uptight traditionalists. “’Well that’s regrettable behavior there. That’s putting the game in disrepute.’ And then somehow we manage to forget all those things and focus all our attention on a very specific subject, and that is diving.”

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What are some of “those things,” you ask? Well, there’s the occasional oil check, Moreno says. There are all sorts of nasty, vulgar insults. There are maulings every time a corner kick is taken, and pleas of innocence to referees when the subject is very much guilty.

And yet, Moreno points out, in European and especially Anglo soccer, “the ‘cheater’ tag seems to be exclusively reserved for attacking players. When a defender is shielding the ball towards the endline, feels minimal contact from the opposition, goes down, and draws the foul, somehow, that is acceptable and even praised as ‘clever,’ ‘good defending,’ ‘showed his experience.’”

Diving, Moreno says, is far less “frowned upon” in South America. Growing up in Venezuela, it “was very much part of the game, and there was no negative connotation to it,” he says. Problems only arise when cultures clash — and that’s where the biases kick in.

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It’s perhaps true, Moreno says, that, due to those cultural differences, a disproportionate number of South American players at the top of the sport are prolific divers. “But what I find just so ridiculous is that, we seem to believe that it’s a Latin American issue, it’s a South American issue,” he says.” The belief turns one dive into a full-fledged sour reputation for a Latino player, when in reality, Moreno argues, diving “is all over the game. Arjen Robben is not from Tegucigalpa. He’s not.”

And he’s not judging Robben, a former Dutch star, he clarifies. His point is that nobody should be judged, or branded morally bankrupt, for trying to win a game — and certainly not based on their country of origin.

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 24: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal is brought down by Mohammed Salisu of Ghana during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group H match between Portugal and Ghana at Stadium 974 on November 24, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal is brought down by Mohammed Salisu of Ghana during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group H match between Portugal and Ghana at Stadium 974 on November 24, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Is VAR changing the game?

What Moreno never had to account for, and what today’s players must, is video review. Since VAR’s implementation late last decade, it has served as both a deterrent and a refereeing safety net that, at least in the penalty box, divers often can’t sneak through.

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Although there’s little empirical evidence that it has begun to do away with diving, multiple players interviewed for this story — though not all of them — believe it has. “Sadly, yes,” Moreno said with a hearty laugh.

“I think it took some time,” U.S. defender Aaron Long told Yahoo Sports. “I think there’s a lot of habits that attackers get into. I think more than anything, guys know how to work the system. And once VAR came into the picture, I think it mighta took a half a season or a season, but you can’t really trick it. So I think it’s curbed a lot of that stuff. I haven’t seen as much.”

Defenders generally like VAR; attackers less so.

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“VAR does a lot of things, and one of the things that it does is that it’ll highlight your ability, or in many cases inability, to draw the contact necessary for you to go down,” Moreno says. “And when you slow things down, you can highlight that a tackle looks worse than it is, but you can also highlight that a tackle is not nearly as bad as you thought it was.”

So, although diving will continue to be an attacker’s “recourse” between the penalty boxes, it is destined to subside where it’s most consequential, inside the area. It won’t punish the grabs and the nudges, but will detect the con artists. And “the high-morality crowd will say, ‘well yes, exactly, this is what we’re looking for,’” Moreno laments.

“What I would say is, it’s not gonna go away,” he says of diving. “And the guys that are really good at doing this, the guys that can really sell a foul, the guys that can draw contact, those guys will not go away. I hope it’s an art that is not lost.”

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