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Why Cheating is Culture Specific

A few years ago, FIFA came up with a saying that was to improve refereeing around the globe: “Make common sense more common.” If the organization had hoped for more uniformity among its referees, it was to be sorely disappointed. The interpretation of soccer’s seemingly simple set of laws varies widely across countries, as do ways to break these laws, and what is in fact seen as law-breaking. Cheating, it turns out, is open to interpretation.

One of the main dividing lines in the interpretation of cheating can be drawn between the English on the one hand and those on the European Continent and South America on the other. A major fault line emerged at last summer’s World Cup that showed the difference in the way each group views cheating.

That was when Wayne Rooney stomped on Portugal’s defender Ricardo Carvalho during the World Cup quarterfinal. As referee Horacio Elizondo was deciding how to punish the young English striker, his club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo rushed forward, lobby for a red card to be shown. When that punishment was meted out, many in England were quick to blame Ronaldo for “having got Rooney sent off.”


The real injustice, in many English eyes, was how Ronaldo had attempted to persuade Elizondo to punish Rooney. Many in the English press piled on Ronaldo, claiming his actions alone had led to Rooney’s dismissal (Elizondo later denied having been influenced at all; Rooney also denied having stomped deliberately on Carvalho; you at home can make up your own mind).

The Rooney / Ronaldo incident is just one example of how many in England view attempting to influence referees as cheating. The English also often take particular offense at so-called “card-waving,” when players visually demonstrate the action they believe a referee should take. Former Arsenal left back Nigel Winterburn spoke for many when he said on The Game Podcast in February. He said, “I hate to see players sticking their hand in their air with this imaginary card.”

Italian journalist Gabrielle Marcotti responded, “I know people love to raise this issue … [but] if you feel you’ve been fouled you have a right to tell the referee.” Winterburn agreed that players have the right to tell the ref when they are getting fouled, but claimed they should tell him, not visually remonstrate with him.

In the end, the two are not that far off, with both agreeing that aggrieved players have a right to express their displeasure. But while the former English player wants such complaints to be done verbally, Marcotti has no problem with gestures thrown in.

While running the risk of stereotyping, it is not too far a stretch to look at the way the English communicate compared with their Italian counterparts (and many other Europeans as well). The English are known for their stiff upper lip; the Italians for their exquisite repertoire of gestures. So, is this card-waving really cheating or simply a misreading of a different communication style?


Christian Vieri gestures toward referee Byron Moreno at the 2002 World Cup

Another type of cheating that foreigners have allegedly brought into England is diving. Sir Alex Ferguson has said that “the diving problem has started since foreign players came into our country” (unlike many, he was also willing to admit that “English players do it too”). Sir Bobby Charlton echoed Fergie’s sentiments, saying “We seem to have drifted into some bad habits that others brought with them. We didn’t used to have any of this [diving] in our country until players from abroad came in.”

Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, and Didier Zokora are among the latest players to have been accused of being divers upon their arrivals in England. But after a few flops, many of these players have actually toned down their theatrics. I don’t doubt that the strength of English anti-diving sentiment is responsible for such a change. The negative reaction these players received from the press and the public was such that it was able to influence the way they play.


Drogba in full flight at last summer’s World Cup

But why were they diving in the first place? If anti-diving sentiment is strong in England, it is weak, if not non-existent in many other countries. In some cases, it is even encouraged. The Argentines, for example, use words such as picadia criolla and viveza to describe the craftiness, trickery, or cheekiness to describe players who break the rules, but get away with doing so (if a player dives in the forest and nobody’s there to see it …). So, it’s not that Argentines necessarily promote cheating, but they do have a concept that condones, if not encourages, it.

There are certain types of play that the English see as fair play, but Argentines and others view as cheating. Most of them involve what the aggrieved parties see as excessive force. As I wrote earlier, this week any type of straight-legged, cleats-up tackle is called la plancha in Spanish and is sure to provoke anger when employed.

Another difference in the interpretations of cheating can be seen in the degree to which players are permitted to challenge the goalkeeper. When Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech had his skull fractured by a Stephen Hunt challenge, Jose Mourinho went predictably ballistic, saying his goalkeeper was “lucky to be alive.” Even with the giant grain of salt any of his utterings require, Mourinho’s anger pointed to a difference in the way goalkeepers are treated in England and in much of the world.

The more physically robust style that is the hallmark of English soccer has long included the right to challenge the goalkeeper. Long ago, English strikers would bundle the keeper into the net, ball in hand, and be awarded a goal. This has changed somewhat, but in England there remains an expectation that goalkeepers will be firmly challenged when going for a ball.

This is in marked contrast to the more hands-off approach taken in much of Europe and South America. There, opposition players are permitted to have much less contact with the goalkeeper and those who ignore this are quickly called for fouls. Mourinho, accustomed to this treatment of goalies, was incensed at the English interpretation of the law, a sentiment shared by several other coaches.

While challenging goalkeepers is the most potentially dangerous manifestation of the English style, center forwards in that country are known for going up extremely forcefully against defenders as well. Alan Shearer, the man who railed against Cristiano Ronaldo’s cheating, was notorious for elbowing opponents who dared get in between him and the ball (a model of fair play, Shearer also suggested that post-World Cup “there’s every chance that Wayne Rooney could go back to the Man United training ground and stick one on Ronaldo”).


Alan Shearer’s elbows took no prisoners

Another soccer podcast, the Guardian’s Football Weekly (click here for edited clip) also featured a discussion recently on notions of cheating in various countries. Kevin McCarra offered a sophisticated take.“Cheating comes in different national types,” he said. “In Britian, for example, pushing a center half so he’s off balance as you head the ball in the net is the basis of a career and no one thinks it’s scandalous at all. It’s funny how we react more to certain types of cheating than others.”

Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s man in Spain, agreed. “We can get uppity and say, ‘look at him diving or look at him deliberately handballing’ and so, but Spaniards will quite often say to me, ‘but hang on a minute, in England assassinating a center forward is seen as fair game for a center back.

Lowe then summed it up well: “There’s a different sense of which parts of breaking the rules are fair in which countries.”


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