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EditorialEditorial tumbling act

Gamesmanship has never just been a “foreign” problem no matter how often the claim is repeated

Fourteen years ago, some photos of Valencia players training ahead of a Champions League semi-final second leg at Leeds drew an angry reaction in the English press. The pictures appeared to show them practising how to fake physical contact in order to win free-kicks. These efforts didn’t have a decisive effect – a goalless draw saw Valencia through to the final 3-0 on aggregate – but England’s World Cup squad can expect to be put through similar drills. Or at least that is one way to interpret comments made last month by Roy Hodgson’s assistant, Gary Neville, in his other role as a TV pundit.

Explaining why he thought West Ham’s Matt Jarvis should have gone down when fouled in the area against Arsenal, Neville said: “He can either be an angel, or he can win his team a penalty. Ultimately that’s the game.” English players are, it seems, especially honourable – “the only country that thinks the way we do about diving” – but they need to adapt, having been “stitched up by foreign players so many times”. Neville’s comments drew a divided reaction in the press: some despaired at the cynical tone but the majority praised his plain-speaking. It’s not unusual to see diving identified as a virus imported into English football from abroad – Arsène Wenger was among those to agree with Neville when he made similar points in 2012. But as is often the case when moral principles are invoked, the argument is clouded by hypocritical bluster. Among current English players, Ashley Young has the most hard-won reputation for tumbling over in the penalty area, a technique that may have been honed by watching some of the Premier League’s overseas players.

An English phrase that is supposed to sum up our sporting ethos, “Fair Play”, was adopted as a slogan by the international football authorities in the late 1980s (Sepp Blatter even offered it in plaintive response to being booed during his opening speech at the

First-hand knowledge picked up from foreign team-mates played no part in Francis Lee acquiring the nickname “Lee Won Pen” in his decade as a striker with Manchester City

2002 World Cup finals). It’s a blandly meaningless message that appears on banners carried onto the pitch ahead of matches that may then be packed with violence and controversy. The concept even has some rewards attached, with Europa League places made available each season through the European Fair Play ranking. As England are nearly always placed near the top of the list, Neville may be among those who see this as a reflection of some innate decency. Instead it is simply a consequence of our referees being less inclined than most of their European colleagues to issue cards for fouls.

As with stealing yards at free-kicks or wrongly claiming throw-ins, managers who complain about opponents diving don’t tend to discourage their own teams from doing it.

Whether they are simulating a foul or clogging an opponent, footballers everywhere learn what they can get away with and adapt when required. Nationality has nothing to do with it.

But first-hand knowledge picked up from foreign team-mates played no part in Francis Lee acquiring the nickname “Lee Won Pen” in his decade as a striker with Manchester City. The 33 goals that made Lee the top scorer in Division One in 1971-72 included a record 15 penalties, many of which he earned himself with a theatrical flourish. In Lee’s final League season, with Derby three years later, his tendency to throw himself about is said to have caused a famous televised punch-up with Leeds’ Norman Hunter, whose team-mates were prone to some tricky manoeuvres of their own. While being one of the best teams in domestic and European football for a decade, Leeds were also known for various forms of gamesmanship, from off-the-ball obstruction to taking turns to complain to referees. Diving was not a major part of their repertoire but they were no less cynical than a team that benefits from conning match officials in the penalty area.

When foreign players began arriving in English club football in significant numbers in the early 1990s, interviews they gave to the media back home would often mention two things about their new environment. One of these – the British players’ enthusiasm for going out drinking after a match regardless of the result – seems much less prevalent now. But the other – referees’ frequent indulgence of reckless challenges – is as much of an issue as ever.

Gary Neville has a word of advice for Ashley Young photos

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