Saturday marked the first visit of my older son, Felix, to the Globe Pub. He is a soccer player (7 goals in 9 games this fall), and a soccer fan, but, I’ll be honest: I think the biggest draw was breakfast. (He is 9 years old.) When I described everything that came with the “full English,” his eyes lit up, even if he wasn’t necessarily going to take my word on the white and black puddings.
(Click here if you want to skip my recap and get straight to the diving.)
It was a good crew of Villans: Mike Reed, Simon Leach, Cat Stewart, Greg Asad, Saul Ebrima, Mark Ward. And Felix and me, of course. Plus some guy not in a Villa shirt who stood near our table but obviously had our team’s interests at heart.
One of the great things about supporting a mid-table team: in a bar, you’re much more likely to all sit together than if you support one of the better-marketed top teams. There were more Liverpool supporters than Villans at the Globe, but there was little sign of recognition between their scattered tables. The Villans are in it TOGETHER.
Much like the Arsenal game last week, I’d gone into this not expecting much of anything. Even if we HAD demolished them 3-1 at Anfield last season, even though we ARE much better away from home, it was just hard to imagine we’d come away with a point or three, not when “SAS” (Suarez and Sturridge) are in such a rich vein of form, with 32 goals between them this season coming into the game.
Then again, Suarez hasn’t been exactly been prolific against Villa. If I’m not very much mistaken, he only has one goal against us in a half-dozen previous games….
We started brightly, with a great one-on-one chance by Gabby in the first minute going just wide of the post. And then, in the 24th minute, Clark thumped a header onto the post. Villa looked great and were attacking with panache—but, we wondered, were those the missed chances we would rue? Would Liverpool get one against the run of play and cause Villa to retreat into their all-too-familiar defensive shell?
A minute later we had our answer. Gabby made a brilliant run and timed a ball perfectly across the face of the goal, where it met Weimann, who’d made a lung-bursting run up the wing to tap it home. I know he doesn’t score that often, but we need a song for Weimann—he deserves something for the shift he puts in. And then, in the 36th minute, it was Gabby with another assist, the ball finding Benteke’s big head for the Belgian’s second goal in two games. To be fair, Mignolet (which, I believe, is French for a “small, delicate cut of meat”) made a hash of the cross, but still. TWO NIL. AT ANFIELD.
Which meant it was only a matter of time before we gave one back. It looked very much as though we might make it to the half without conceding but, two minutes into injury time, Sturridge gave the Scousers something to cheer about, deftly taking a through ball from Henderson and putting into the top left corner of our net. I feared that Villa would come out looking defensive in the second half but, aside for one debatable substitution (Holt for a limping Agbonlahor; I would have preferred Albrighton’s speed to keep the pressure on Liverpool’s back line), Villa continued to attack and to play well. Yes, they didn’t have quite the same intensity. But they didn’t fold. Loanee left back Betrand looked terrific, and even Holt showed both grit and guile. Villa looked every bit the equal of the hosts. And, when Liverpool finally found the equalizer, it wasn’t because Villa were lacking.
It was because Luis Suarez dived.
Yes, you can argue, as some pundits have, that Guzan made it easy for him by coming out too hard at first. Or that Guzan shouldn’t have come out at all. And there may have been a whisper of contact. But touching a player isn’t in itself a foul, even in the penalty area. What did happen is that, running at speed, and seeing a goalkeeper’s speedy approach, Suarez left a leg behind and went over as if he’d been clattered into with full force. Replays showed that contact, if there was any, was light.
. . . the fact remains: in American football, a player going down without contact is almost unheard of. While in top-level European soccer, it happens every week.
Diving symbolizes the gap between English football and American football. It’s the kind of act that American jocks like to point to when they make their tired arguments about how wimpy our sport is. We, in turn, can point to all sorts of things, from continuous action, to lack of body armor, to players’ mind-boggling fitness to make our rebuttal, but the fact remains: in American football, a player going down without contact is almost unheard of. While in top-level European soccer, it happens every week.
Not that it’s accepted by all the fans, of course. English fans, and fans of English soccer (many of whom happen to be American), in particular, tend to greet diving with outrage. It’s unsportsmanlike! It’s unmanly! It’s exactly what you’d expect of players who come from countries where the sun shines too much! I know that last point sounds like stereotypical stereotyping, but but that attitude still exists.
And maybe there’s some truth to it, too. In continental Europe and South America, diving seems to be treated with much less shock. (Professional managers still use terms such as “a Spanish penalty.”) I don’t know if it’s admired, exactly, but maybe it’s viewed as a player doing whatever it takes to get his team a win. (Could I be saying that Suarez falling down is like Pete Rose running over a catcher? Well, maybe somewhere . . . .) And if a player helps his team win, fans of his team have a lot harder time condemning him than everyone else. Suarez clearly helps his teams to win, whether it’s a handball on the line for Uruguay or a dive in the box for Liverpool or a well-timed bite on the biceps of . . . . hmm.
One of the thoughts flitting through my mind during the second half was: I’m glad I’m not a Liverpool fan. And it wasn’t simply because I was thinking that I’d have this Saturday-morning-serial villain twirling his mustache on my team. It was also because, in addition to having to defend his antics week in and week out, I would have to reconcile with that my pleasure at the rewards reaped by those despicable antics. Yes, we all tell ourselves we hate divers and dirty players, and we may well do, but do we REALLY hate the dive that salvages a point in the game at home? Would we REALLY rather be a bottom-half team that plays “good, honest football” (if that can actually be defined) or would we rather be chasing a place in Europe, hitched to a player whose play makes us wince almost as often as we can admire it?
It would be a harder question to answer if we actually had any choice in the matter, wouldn’t it?
No one can deny Suarez’s immense talent. He’s a prolific goalscorer with a good work rate (no Bent or Berbatov he), he can pass and create, and he’s really not as selfish as he could be. And he doesn’t even personally profit from his diving, at least at Liverpool, where Gerrard is the designated penalty taker. So one view would be that Suarez is the consummate team player who will do ANYTHING to get his team—not just himself—an advantage.
Another, equally compelling view could be that, due to some flaw in his upbringing (maybe his mother didn’t hold him enough? he was taunted about his teeth?), he lacks some crucial components—empathy chief among them—which, combined with poor impulse control, leads him to do whatever he feels is right in the moment. Whether it’s bite someone (which he has done twice), make a racist remark, or dive, dive, dive (which, let’s be fair, he’s quite skilled at).
A brief digression as I’m running out of time: we tend to revere “hard-nosed” players who like to “get a tackle in.” Naturally, this can cross a line, and a player who we like for being rugged can take it too far, break someone’s leg, and then become a villain in their own right. But, as a rule, we cut a lot more slack to tough players, who hurt people, than to divers, who hurt no one. Of course, dives lead to goals, which hurt whole teams’ fortunes, and the hopes of the fans, whereas the consequences of a single bad tackle are often a bit harder to sum up.
Anyway, as I said: I’m glad Luis Suarez isn’t on my team. Because, even when they’re woeful, Villa don’t require complicated moral footwork to defend—just patience. And, on Saturday, Villa were anything but woeful. Add that to the second half against Arsenal and they’re actually looking like a team we can be proud of.
After the game, Lambert was diplomatic. Guzan was diplomatic. Rodgers defended his man. And what kind of manager would he be if he didn’t? The cinematic kind, played by Jimmy Stewart or Spencer Tracy.