Moral panic on the pitch
You learned it quite early on. If someone tugged at your sleeve, or touched your back, or whiffed a kick close enough to your shin, you immediately slowed down and tripped yourself. Then you glanced at the referee and said, “Porra, falta caralho!” (roughly, “Fuck — foul, dammit!”). You could murmur this sentence under your breath, squint and throw your arms up in the air, and fall to the ground with the pious expression of a saint, grasping your shin and writhing with the pain of your unseen injury. Or you could just shout it so the whole pitch heard, in a crackling little whine: Porra, falta caralho!
It depended on what line of acting you favored. I preferred discretion. When touched on the back or gently tapped on the shin during improvised matches at school or on the hot tarmac next to my grandfather’s house, I’d fall and then rise slowly, picking up the ball and placing it under my arm with a smirk of mock amusement on my face. I can’t recall where I learned this style. Perhaps it was an attempt to channel the more elegant midfielders of the 1994 World Cup — the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, the Romanian polymath Gheorghe Hagi. I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass, couldn’t dribble, couldn’t even run. I was a loathsome player. But I often dove.
My cousin, a couple years older than me, was, by contrast, admired for his skills; his father sometimes talked about sending him to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo to try out for the big national-league soccer teams. My uncle was even more skillful, and fast on the pitch despite becoming quite stout in middle age. They dove, too.
My grandfather never played much, but he was the most obsessed with the game. In the late ’70s he became chairman of Dom Bosco, a small soccer team from our hometown in Mato Grosso state. He often told me about the year they tied Corinthians at an away match in the Brazilian Championship (Campeonato Brasileiro) — an occasion Corinthians fans have no doubt forgotten but that my grandfather talked about until he died. By the time I was born, in 1983, my grandfather was no longer chairman of Dom Bosco. But his house was so cluttered with memorabilia, so full of newspaper clippings, desolate trophies and flags, and white-and-pale-blue jerseys, that I always thought of him as still in that line of work.
My favorite item in the house was a small golden statue of a lion that gazed out toward the horizon, its little chest thrust out. The trophy was a reference to Dom Bosco’s nom de guerre: “The lion on the hill.” I liked its camp sentimentality, its tackiness, the cheap gilded material from which it was made. But what I most liked and disliked about it, I now realize, was its naive derivativeness: its embodiment of that Latin American tendency to place aspiration elsewhere, to pick a foreign reference as the symbol of local truth and morality. There are many kinds of animals in Mato Grosso’s swamplands — alligators, leopards, tuiuiús (stately birds with fine, elongated beaks), and ariranhas (vicious little seals that swim in packs and can maul you to death if provoked). But there are no lions in that region, and there are almost no hills.
Of Lionel Messi it is often remarked that he is very honest. Even if a defender rips his shirt or trips him inside the box, he’ll get up and go on with the play if there’s a slight chance he can score or, more nobly, assist a teammate. Such behavior lends credence to the larger myth woven around the idol: Messi, the great sportsman, the paragon of goodness; the frail boy who, suffering a setback in his early teens (he wasn’t growing properly and had to take hormones), focused on becoming fast and nimble with his legs; the man who married his high school sweetheart from a backwater Argentine province like his own; who, after scoring three sublime goals in a single match and nutmegging various adversaries, mumbles a positive comment about the idle, toothpicking defenders in the back. Most of all, Messi and the act of diving are incompatible. The skill is nowhere to be found in his repertoire. To ask him to dive would be like asking Henry James to write like Henry Miller.
Most of my American friends don’t understand why certain players fall at the slightest touch. The dive is something beyond their grasp. It involves two grave infringements of American morality in sports: a willingness to cheat, and the demonstration — perhaps the celebration — of physical weakness and self-pity. (The flop, basketball’s closest equivalent, is less dramatic and tends to be associated with foreign players.) To be strong and athletic, full of skill, and then to break down once you reach the penalty area seems absurd. In many ways it is.
But all sports have their own peculiar absurdities, and what determines a foul always carries a certain ambiguity. In tennis, there is the foot fault — a simple and literal crossing of the line. In American football, there is pass interference, committed when a defensive player holds or pushes a receiver, or deliberately obstructs his vision of the ball while not looking for the ball himself. Pass interference is full of ambiguity and therefore open to a referee’s interpretation; even mighty American wide receivers, in the attempt to win the referee’s favor, have been known to exaggerate their falls.
In soccer, though, the ambiguities are endless. The field is enormous, traversed by only a few referees, and the constant melee of kicks and shoves and slides means that almost all moves are open to interpretation. Ambiguity seems constitutive of the sport. Nuno Ramos, a Brazilian visual artist and writer, often points to the difference between a soccer match’s final score and the same match’s possibilities; this is what gives the game such tragic and comic potential. Take the USA versus Belgium match in the 2014 World Cup, a brilliant, tense game that ended with nothing to show for it, a 0–0. There are many potentially deceitful plays in soccer — the defender raising his hands in innocence as he willfully kicks the striker’s shin; the coach substituting players at the end of a match to run out the clock; the midfielder throwing the ball some feet farther afield from where he was fouled; the goalie taking a slight step ahead to increase his chances of defending a penalty kick — but the dive has gained more visibility than others. It is met with outrage where other plays are met with shrugs.
I don’t remember when the dive started to be condemned. I think of 1994 as the landmark, if only because it’s when my memories of childhood and the game converge. Back then it had been twenty-four years since Brazil had last won the World Cup, and when the great, melancholy Italian midfielder Roberto Baggio missed the last penalty shot in the final, somehow retaining his elegance while kicking the ball far beyond the bars, my mother clasped my shoulders, shook me hard, and said: “This is a historic moment you’re seeing! This is a historic moment you’re seeing!” The sentiment was genuine, but there was something theatrical about the way in which she expressed it; my mother never was one to make canned statements. There was something slightly off, a strange monotony in her voice.
The whole tournament had been strange. Carlos Alberto Parreira was a new type of coach, and his physical oddities — cheeks that bulged, a big slanting nose that gave him the air of a Flemish sitter— added to the strangeness of whatever he represented. The line for which he received furious criticism throughout the qualifying rounds (“The best attack is a good defense”) eventually became less disagreeable, because Brazil won the tournament. But the triumph was not a pure one. Brazil, most of us now admit, played with an ugly, awkward style in that World Cup. Most matches were won by a single goal; the defense was always packed tightly in the back; the midfielders were uninspired and lazy. But for Romário’s atavistic talent and reptilian lethargy — his slithering around the pitch for eighty minutes until he suddenly decided to pick the ball up and sprint headlong toward the goal — there is little to remember fondly.
Left only to swift glances, a national sport becomes merely a screen onto which society projects its self-loathing and vanity.Tweet
Soon coaches would begin to wear taut suits and fine shoes, and Parreira, with his methodical approach to the game and simple coach’s tracksuit, would start to look subdued, even humble. But the question posed by that tournament — shall one play beautifully or win? — has now haunted Brazilian soccer for two decades. The question had never been asked before; older relatives pointed out that the value of the bygone teams was precisely that they won by playing beautifully. But 1994 was different, and one sensed bigger shifts under way.
The players were becoming stronger and more physical. Even the slow ones were quick enough that they could effectively shrink the field. Short, colorful keepers, like the Mexican Jorge Campos and the Colombian René Higuita, were soon pushed out of existence; aspirants to the position now seem bred to cover the width and depth of the entire goal. Strikers kick and use their skulls with incredible force, making one wonder vaguely about the risks of head trauma. The better defenders have mastered the long pass. (Nothing irritated my grandfather more than defenders who decided they had other talents than defense to display.) Even the dribble, the skill that perhaps best illuminates soccer’s artful and often inefficient character, has become less dependent on raw acrobatic skill than on horsepower: Cristiano Ronaldo’s dribbles hinge mostly on his sprints, Messi’s on his jittery, short-stepped velocity, the ball glued to his left foot. Dennis Bergkamp, Holland’s star player in 1994 and 1998, was one of the first prototypes of this sort of powerful, efficient genius. However creative his plays, they were almost mathematically precise and straightforward. The rumor about Messi having a mild variant of Asperger’s says less about him and more about the public’s expectation of what a contemporary soccer genius should be.
It’s hard to tell whether Parreira, who favored motivational lectures, management techniques, repetition of plays, and professionalism, was driving changes or simply reacting to them. Across countries, the game was streamlined. The long, slogging matches of the ’70s and ’80s, full of yawns and lulls — the defender passing the ball to the goalie and then getting it back; the striker dawdling near the adversary’s goal, going offside every couple of minutes — gave way to a faster pace. It felt as if a private equity firm had bought the sport, making it slicker and more palatable to the next potential buyer. (Off the field, and in the European leagues above all, this has become increasingly less metaphoric.)
The language of pundits began to suffer alterations, too. “Tactical evolution,” “tactical modernization,” “finalizing capacity”: it’s hard to imagine my grandfather and his friends speaking in these terms. A dribble was no longer just beautiful, it was “exquisite”; a pass wasn’t merely a great pass, it was “elegant” and “precise.” A midfielder was not only smart — he had a “seething intelligence” and a great “articulation capacity.”
The dive had no place in this new order. The cheek, panache, and amateurish quality involved in the act stood against the upgraded, sanitized version of the sport. The dive was ugly. It was a reminder of how dubious players could be, how unfair a match could turn out, how much of the game was outside one’s control. And so soccer commentators, on watching a striker feign a fall around the penalty area, would invariably rejoice when the player was punished with a card. “That’s the kind of attitude that has to change in Brazilian soccer,” Galvão Bueno, the country’s most famous, sentimental, and jingoistic commentator would say when he saw a player tumble needlessly to the ground.
In that 1994 World Cup, an Argentine very different from Messi had made headlines. Diego Armando Maradona — either the best or the second-best player in history, depending on your nationality — had been expelled from the tournament after drug tests revealed five variants of ephedrine in his urine. I remember his weary, haunted look at the press conferences that followed, and the vague schadenfreude one felt, as a child, watching the downfall of a rival’s star. Only a few years before, Maradona had led his country to its second and last World Cup win, in 1986, and then again to a World Cup final against Germany in 1990.
Maradona the coke addict; the loquacious, profane banterer; a Peronist’s dream of a boy, rising out of the slums of Buenos Aires; the Castro-loving emigré; Maradona the cheat. In the 1986 quarterfinal against England, he takes the ball around the middle of the field, sprints, and then leaves three defenders behind before dribbling the goalie and putting the ball into the back of the net. The Argentine commentator shouts in a charged voice: “I want to weep. . . . Oh God, what planet did you come from?”
But that was the second goal. The first one he’d scored that day was different. It was another goal that would go down in history, but for different reasons — the one in which he jumped and gave the ball a slight, fleeting touch of the hand while deceitfully jerking his head toward it, celebrating the goal as soon as the ball hit the back of the net. The cameras picked up the illegal touch but the referee on the field did not, and the goal counted. Asked about it by the press afterward, he said it was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Maradona, of course, always dove beautifully.
“Intellectual football-lovers are a beleaguered crew, despised by intellectuals and football-lovers alike,” Martin Amis wrote in the London Review of Books in 1981. Not much has changed since then. In Brazil, intellectuals talk about soccer the way people who don’t read poetry talk about poetry: with extravagant respect and a short attention span. Most soccer lovers, in turn, just ignore the intellectuals. With rare exceptions — Ramos’s analyses; the staccato journalistic pieces by Tostão, a doctor and former striker for Brazil’s legendary ’70s squad; and the writings of Paulo Vinícius Coelho, known for his empiricist approach to sportswriting — Brazilian newspapers are strewn with columns and crônicas that use lofty and unimaginative soccer rhetoric: the game as a metaphor for life’s unpredictability, for luck and randomness as determinants of final outcomes — ideas so vague and open-ended they could stand in for anything.
Left only to swift glances, a national sport becomes merely a screen onto which society projects its self-loathing and vanity. I grew up in what can be called a victorious soccer generation — Brazil won the World Cup in 1994, reached the final in 1998, and won again in 2002 — and until the 2014 semifinal in Belo Horizonte, when the German squad annihilated Brazil 7–1, most locals seemed to live under the illusion that Brazilian soccer’s superiority was incontestable everywhere. The question “Do we play beautiful or do we win?” was mainly introspective. I had to live in London for five years before I came to understand how overrated many people believed the Brazilian team to be.
The loss to Germany marked a definite change in mood. To judge by the torrent of newspaper columns that followed the match, Brazil suddenly went from the favorite to win the tournament to the most retrograde team that had ever existed — a tired, wandering specter, dazed by European supermen (the tinge of postcolonial self-loathing was impossible to miss). The loss to the Germans became an abyss into which all kinds of facile arguments were lobbed. It was the reflection of a society chronically prone to improvisation; the proof of our unwillingness to reinvent a style and adapt to global shifts. To sob at the anthem in some nationalistic paroxysm — as the players often did before each match — showed the triumph of a soppy emotionalism over rational tactics and thought. One often insightful music critic unwittingly veered into ominous, disturbing territory. “It was important that such a defeat be imposed on us by distant Germany,” he wrote, “a country that expresses, perhaps better than any other, the importance of designing collective projects and seeing them through with great seriousness.”
The tournament had begun for Brazil with the striker Fred falling theatrically in the box, leading to a penalty goal against Croatia. Had Brazil won the World Cup, this would have been a blip on the way to victory. But under the wider mood of self-flagellation, it became yet another instance of the country’s terminal weakness, something to be excised from the national mind and punished.
In a game in which almost every play demands interpretation, it’s worth asking why the dive — one among many forms of foul play — has become such a focus of outrage and disgust. It’s one thing to call or not call a foul; it’s another to act self-righteous and show a card, as referees do, because they’ve decided the player is dirty. Anger over diving is essentially moralistic. If all equally deceitful plays were as strictly policed as the dive, there would be no match to speak of. “The entire game is built on influence-peddling, corruption,” Ramos said in a TV interview back in 2012. “It’s a kind of self-sufficient judiciary. It is not a science, nor is it a place for moralism.”
The colloquial alias for a soccer referee in Brazil is “the man in black.” This seems less an allusion to the black-robed judge than to the medieval executioner. Either way the referee cannot hand out his sentences at will. Try calling a single foul in that lukewarm zone around the middle of the field, where the pigeons often gather and defecate, and watch the gangs rise with their pitchforks — touching, prodding, cursing, whispering doom in one’s ear. I think the most interesting curses I’ve heard were beside a pitch, either at the stadium or on the weekends when we watched our parents play. These were curses directed not from one player to another, but from the players to the referee. Often, when a match came on TV and the screen showed the referee’s surname, my grandfather would turn and whisper to me (or maybe to himself): “Is that one for us or against us?”
He had other phrases. “It’s better to win at the last minute, with an offside goal, than to beat the other team six–nil.” He had a flair for mischievous statements, and this one — said casually, as though it were a platitude — confounded me at first. But soon I understood. Running a small team in the Brazilian interior had bred deep neuroses in him; a referee’s decision had taken away victories or ties from Dom Bosco many times. Of the times he was favored by official decisions, though, he spoke with great pride and joy. The referee was just another variable in the great tug of narratives on the field. Perhaps this attitude discloses a conspiratorial mind-set — but, then again, mistrusting authority is hardly a bad thing. And now, two decades later, I understand him a little better. There really is something exhilarating about winning a match with an offside goal, or a badly called penalty kick, or watching your team’s striker surreptitiously stick his hand out in the air to graze the ball, directing it into the net.
Maradona spoke mischievously of the hand of God; Messi is now praised for being a good boy. The contrast says something about the decades that separate these two geniuses. Ramos, using the Brazilian team as his case study, connects the public’s interest in purity to a class-based resentment. Scrutinizing a young player’s tendency to party, drink, or fuck represents a passive-aggressive reaction by the upper and middle classes, who often feel threatened by drastic social mobility in a country for which stable and deep inequality has been the default mode for generations.
It’s also no secret that the on-field puritanism of the past couple of decades is a blame-shifting strategy for corruption off the field. The influence-peddling Ramos speaks of is quite different from the backdoor dealings of FIFA, the latter being to the former as bank fraud is to petty theft at a chaotic farmers’ market. Moralism need not emerge unconsciously, as an expression of national anxiety — it can be directed, pushed for, and FIFA has pushed hard for it on the field. The most commented-on image of the 2014 World Cup was not Robin van Persie’s sublime header, or Götze’s volley flick in the final, or even the pale, bespectacled Brazilian boy sobbing into his Coca-Cola cup as the Germans thrashed the home team (a neat symbol for the demographic granted economic access to tickets), but that of Uruguayan striker Luiz Suárez biting the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. As a topic of conversation, Suárez’s bite was inescapable. Walking through the streets near the quay in Rio, one often ran into big, flickering screens showing Suárez in slow motion, on a perpetual loop, sinking his teeth into the Italian defender’s collarbone. Everyone, from the bar owners to the rich playboys to the beggars who stood a few feet away from them on the curb, had an opinion about what should be done. “They should suspend him for ten matches,” one person would say. “How is biting worse than kicking a shin?” another would answer. But the punishment didn’t matter. That Suárez’s bite was the scandal was a victory in itself for FIFA.
In a similar way, punishment for the dive has had the function of a show trial. The dive and its immediate aftermath have gone from a cursory occurrence tinged with a little bit of acting to a true spectacle of excess. It now has the grandiloquence Barthes attributed to wrestling. The scene is always punctuated with camp performances: the player’s baffled expression on falling, the referee’s slow, ponderous steps toward the player, the fiddling in the pocket for the card (red? yellow? so many options . . .). Perhaps the closest analogy is gentrification — sweeping away petty crime and dirty streets for more educated interactions and niceness. It’s a distracting spectacle of sorts, a disingenuous broken-windows policy for an institution that is itself broken. Even the defensive hysteria of the uncritical gentrifier (so you’d prefer high crime rates? that everything remain dirty and neglected?) is similar to the hysteria of those who relish punishments against divers. The swiftness with which a culture accepts what was once a peccadillo as a deadly sin, though, is a more complicated process. It may involve a certain tendency to import foreign values, to imagine a lion on a hill in a swampy region where lions and hills do not exist.
The beginning of FIFA’s moralistic push might be traced to the late ’80s, not long after Maradona’s “hand of God,” with the beginning of its Fair Play campaign. A symbolic award to supposedly stimulate sportsmanship, the first FIFA Fair Play award was given in 1987 to the Scottish fans of Dundee United for their good behavior toward their Swedish counterparts, the fans of IFK Göteborg, the team who won that year’s UEFA cup final. They shared the prize with the German player Frank Ordenewitz, for his decision to admit a handball in a Bundesliga match between FC Köln and Werder Bremen. The award never quite caught on — most of the public barely knows it exists — and the criteria for winning it have become increasingly vague. In 1990, the English forward Gary Lineker won it for never having received a yellow or red card during his career; in 1991, the Brazilian right back Jorginho received it simply for his model behavior on and off the field. By 1998, the award had gone political: the American and Iranian soccer confederations received it for the match they played in the 1998 World Cup without incident, and shared it with the Irish Football Association of Northern Ireland for their promotion of a match in Belfast between Cliftonville and Linfield, home to Catholic and Protestant communities.
The expression “fair play” has now become a favorite composite noun of the soccer establishment, to the point that the famously corrupt former chairman Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, upset at boos he received alongside President Dilma Rousseff during the opening ceremony of the 2013 Confederations Cup in Rio, irritably and ludicrously pleaded with the crowd: “Friends of Brazilian football, where’s the respect, where’s the fair play?”
In retrospect, it seems Maradona’s two goals in the 1986 quarterfinal against England spawned distinct but enduring legacies. The second goal, with its fine arrangement of parts, became the Aristotelian ideal against which talented strikers would measure themselves. The “hand of God,” meanwhile, kindled the FIFA Fair Play movement and contributed to a moral backlash in soccer that persists to this day.
In 1990, Argentina returned to play another World Cup final against Germany. I was 7 years old, but I recall the adults getting into a heated argument the day of the final — an argument that extended into the evening, and that the children, my cousins and I, joined in on despite our poor understanding of tactics. The discussion that day was whether the German striker had really been fouled, or whether the penalty given — which called the match, and then the championship, in Germany’s favor — was the result of a dive.
Since then, I’ve rewatched clips of that game. The play happens in the eighty-fifth minute — the last stretch of a match that’s widely considered to be the worst World Cup final ever (violent, dull, stiff) in the worst World Cup tournament ever (it is still the lowest-scoring tournament of its kind in history). Stefan Reuter, the German midfielder, picks the ball up midfield, sprints, and holds on to it a little until his options open up. Three forwards split and widen, like a flock of geese shifting formation. Reuter’s pass is precise in the way that only certain medium-range passes can be — the timing seems tailored to the striker Rudi Völler, who, shadowed by the Argentine defender Sensini, sprints into the box. As Völler receives the ball, Sensini is right behind him; the striker no sooner touches the ball than he collapses. Then there is the usual theater. Sensini gets up and turns toward the referee with that murderous expression of startled innocence. His teammates surround the referee, who, pushed and shoved, works his way toward the box and makes the irrevocable gesture toward the penalty spot. Andreas Brehme takes the kick and lands it low into Goycochea’s right-hand side. Germany wins.
Had we been in the schoolyard, we would have been a little dismayed but perhaps a little delighted. Because if there ever were such a thing as a perfect dive, it would have been precisely this. The propulsion of the fall correctly measured, the context agreeably neutral, the falling not too campy — a fall so perfect that a person writing a quarter of a century later, with the ability to loop the play over and over again on a computer screen, would still, in the end, have difficulty saying what really happened.
My grandfather lost money on soccer, and he admitted this with pride, even a little happiness. After he retired, he occasionally talked about reviving Dom Bosco, which had faced a steep, sad decline in the ’80s and throughout the ’90s. He spoke of the team’s revival in a determined, epiphany-prone manner that betrayed his lack of faith in its ever coming to pass.
There was a man, I’ll call him Alberto, who was on the board of Dom Bosco throughout my grandfather’s tenure and remained connected to the team after my grandfather retired. He often came to visit, and he and my grandfather would sit together for hours drinking coffee or extract of guarana leaves diluted in water. Alberto would first speak of plans to revive the club, and then he would ask for money. He was garrulous, with strong opinions about last week’s matches, who the new talents were, and who should be sacked or left on the squad. However the conversations began, they always ended the same way, with my grandfather giving him money. This went on for many years, and there was something obscene in it — one man taking advantage of the other’s passion. Years later, when my interest in soccer began to fade, I couldn’t bring myself to lie and feign greater interest in the game than I felt, even though I knew it would please my grandfather very much.
But there was a time when we watched many matches together. He continually asked his children to buy bigger, more modern TVs to watch them on, and each TV seemed more displaced in a room lined with Catholic shrines: St. Francis and St. Benedict, mostly. In the corner of the room was a box made of fine wood, with little glass doors that opened onto a pastoral scene. It had shepherds and the Virgin Mary, and the scene was constantly in the corner of your eye when you watched a match; it could be quite annoying. The room was often cool from the air conditioner, and it gave one a feeling of pleasant isolation. Outside, the heat was unbearable, and I associated it with movement and crowds, and the cool interior with stillness, which I preferred. I think he preferred it too. If a striker dawdled round the penalty area, dribbling aimlessly, undecided whether to shoot or pass the ball, he’d rise from the hammock on which he lay, clear his throat, and hiss: “Fall, you sonofabitch! Just fall!”