By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The widespread problem of footballers’ diving has been blamed on the influx of foreign players for years but now a study from the University of Portsmouth has found they are seen to be the worst culprits.
Football referee expert Dr Tom Webb interviewed nearly 40 refereeing professionals from England, Spain and Italy and found that the growing trend of player deception is directly linked to the large number of foreign players in the UK Premier League.
Dr Webb, from the University’s department of Sport and Exercise Science, also found that top level referees are encouraged to keep the game flowing, which means fewer fouls are called up.
He said: “Diving is a massive problem in football and there is a constant battle against it in the sport. It’s such a sensitive issue because it involves someone trying to cheat and often significantly affects the outcome of the game.
“This study found that the practice of diving is more accepted in countries like Spain and Italy and South American countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, so players from these countries who play in the UK are more likely to be responsible.”
A Spanish referee who was interviewed for the research said there didn’t used to be a problem with simulation – the official term for diving – in England because English players respected the law but since so many players from other nationalities and cultures have started playing in the Premier League the problem has increased.
Dr Webb said: “This cultural difference makes it difficult for an English referee because they are just not used to that kind of player behaviour.”
Other referees in Spain believe players are trained to dive and confuse the referee. One said: “The situation is a problem, not just one player. It is one of the most difficult problems for us because there are players who are very good actors and I think they train during the week to confuse the referee.”
The study also found that referees adjust their style when they are refereeing in European competition, meaning any movement towards uniformity and standardisation of refereeing by organisations such as UEFA and FIFA is problematic.
Dr Webb said: “The Premier League is a product so the pressure is on to make it fast and entertaining and keep people interested. If fouls are constantly called up the game doesn’t flow and fans lose interest. English, Spanish and Italian referees operate differently in European and international competitions where they don’t feel this pressure so much.”
The referees interviewed were asked about their perception and experience of player behaviour and their thoughts on how cheating should be managed.
Dr Webb said: “There were some contentious refereeing decisions last season but it’s why these problems and errors are occurring that requires scrutiny. Referees are coming under fire because it becomes their fault if a player cheats and they don’t see it.
“Refereeing in England is organised and managed differently to most other countries in Europe and the rest of the world. The structure, development and training of referees are all areas which require much greater consideration if real change and movement towards uniformity is wanted in refereeing.”
The study is published in Sport, Business and Management: an International Journal