Every four years the World Cup captures international attention and, soon after, antipodean fans catch the sight of an annoyingly fit athlete rolling on the ground as if his vital functions are ceasing. Then come the following questions, which I will attempt to satisfactorily answer while remaining on my feet.

Why do footballers occasionally act like they've been stung by a box jellyfish?
Here's one answer. In a fast-paced game in which the ball is regularly enveloped by a tangle of legs, it's often difficult to know who is touching whom. Players will feel a clip at an ankle the referee has no chance of spotting and, even if the contact is minimal, go to ground in search of justice in an unjust world.

Here's another answer: they're cheating to win football games.

The truth? In all but the most egregious cases it's somewhere in the middle, as manager Gareth Southgate explained about a team being praised in the English press as being 'streetwise'.


"Maybe we're getting a bit smarter. Maybe we're playing our game more by the rules the rest of the world are playing. But we kept our dignity and our sportsmanship, and if we went down it was because we were fouled."

So pretending to be hurt is fine?
I think there's a difference. Personally I have zero issue with going to ground to accentuate contact, which is what Southgate is essentially describing. I also don't really care about a player hitting the deck under the threat of contact, especially if it's to avoid a good kicking.

Staying down and clutching the ankle in the hopes of deceiving the referee, getting an opponent booked and infinitesimally increasing their chance to win? Sure, whatever.
It does get a little ridiculous on the third roll, I must admit.

Brazil's Neymar holds his shinbone during the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena, in Kazan, Russia. Photo / AP
Brazil's Neymar holds his shinbone during the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena, in Kazan, Russia. Photo / AP

Don't the players care they look ridiculous and 'soft'?

Not an iota. You really think a chorus of boos in the stadium or a deluge of taunts on Twitter mean anything to an elite athlete doing as he's been taught: what it takes to win?

Observers may ask, how do the players sleep at night? To which the footballers respond: "On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies."

On the 'soft' thing, though… While memes comparing a footballer feigning injury to, say, a hockey player who had their mouth rearranged by a puck are marginally amusing, can we cool it on the question of masculinity? Insisting men must be stoic and impervious to pain, now that's ridiculous. There are myriad ways to be masculine and few involve refusing to wince when something hurts. Pretending to be on death's door when all's well is mere gamesmanship, not an affront to 'real men'.

But why would fans of other codes be interested in a game with such gamesmanship?
Frankly, why would football give a shit what other sports' supporters think? It's football. It's not really in dire need of new disciples.


There's an interesting sentiment among some fans of others codes involving a desire for validation. A need that pleads: please like my sport. And I get that - the underdog has to work harder to make its value known. But the top dog ain't exactly begging for approval.

Otherwise Fifa would have tried earlier to eradicate rampant corruption. Or it would have avoided awarding its showpiece tournament to countries with questionable human rights. Or it would have made a concerted effort to tamp down on the diving.

Unless an issue is actively impairing the bottom line, football is gonna shrug. You either like the sport, and you abide its flaws for a moment of breathtaking beauty like Belgium's second goal against Brazil, or you don't.

What about VAR? Can't the new technology reduce the play-acting?
There are promising signs. Renowned Brazilian thespian Neymar was earlier in the tournament awarded a penalty for a flagrant dive against Costa Rica but, after the decision was reviewed, the call was reversed. Problem being, Neymar wasn't booked for his troubles, because definitively judging a dive is easier said than done.

No number of replays can determine intent. England's Harry Maguire went down in the Colombian box during extra time of their last-16 clash and, given it was quickly clear he wasn't touched, promptly picked himself up. Did he dive, or did he move his feet from where he thought contact was coming? Sometimes an incident is neither a penalty nor a dive - two things can be true.

Even with Neymar, an instant before he unleashed a flop that would have made Fosbury proud, there was the slightest of tugs on his jersey. It's easy to imagine Neymar felt as much, presumed a more forceful pull was coming and decided to hasten the process. Not every call is as objective as whether a ball crosses a line.

So are you defending Neymar?
No. Neymar is a ninny.