Diving, deception and the debate over fair play

By Joshua Law

Twitter is not normally known as a haven of profundity and erudition but there are rare occasions when someone manages an utterance of pith and astuteness using a mere 140 characters. Brazilian ESPN journalist Rafael Oliveira was recently responsible for such a moment, encapsulating in two short sentences what many feel about the apparent moral decadence encapsulated in recent events in Brazilian football:

The tweet, which generated a huge amount of discussion, roughly translates as: “In 2017 we have already had simulations [i.e. feigning injury to try to get a player sent off] from a referee, a ball-boy and a manager. And the theme that has had the biggest repercussions is a player being honest.”

For those who do not follow the bizarre happenings of the Brazilian game closely I will explain the incidents to which he refers.

Firstly, the referee. In a game between Rio de Janeiro teams Vasco Da Gama and Flamengo, ex-Brazil and current Vasco player Luis Fabiano committed a foul in the centre circle. It was soft but he had put a halt to a Flamengo counter, so a yellow card was correctly applied by the referee, Luis Antônio Silva dos Santos.

Incensed by the decision, Fabiano confronted Silva dos Santos, making contact with his chest on the official’s. In itself it was enough for another yellow, but needlessly, the referee threw himself backwards, stumbling and almost falling to the ground as if he had been head butted by Fabiano. Television images clearly showed there had been no head-to-head contact.

Secondly, the ball-boy. In Brazil ball-boys are often not boys, usually youth-team players, as they are in Europe, but fully-grown adults, contracted by the clubs on a game-by-game basis in the same way as stewards.

In a Copa Sudamericana game between Corinthians and Universidad de Chile one of these ball-men was lightly brushed on the chest by an irritated La U player as he rather tardily returned a ball for a throw-in. The ball-man thought for a second before clutching his chest, spinning and throwing himself to the floor behind the advertising hoarding with the style and theatrical acumen of a 1970s Bond-villain’s henchman.

Thirdly, the manager. Internacional, a giant club from the Southern city of Porto Alegre, who last year were relegated from Série A for the first time in their history contracted former Brazil and Roma centre-back (and well-known racist) Antônio Carlos Zago as manager to lead them back to the top-flight at the first time of asking.

During a game in the Rio Grande do Sul state championship, he too was guilty of dramatically throwing himself to the floor to try and get an opposition player dismissed after a light touch on the chest. The video in the tweet below shows all three incidents in full:

Simulation on the part of players in Brazil is so common as to go almost unnoticed but these cases, owing to their distinctiveness, each caused somewhat of a stir.

However, the biggest controversy of the season, alluded to in the second sentence of Oliveira’s tweet, was caused not by ridiculous theatrics but by a player honestly correcting an erroneous refereeing decision that would have disadvantaged his opponent.

São Paulo were facing Corinthians in the semi-final of the Campeonato Paulista in their home Morumbi stadium and Corinthians player Jô, formerly of Manchester City and Everton, was battling for the ball with São Paulo centre-back Rodrigo Caio and goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro. Ribeiro, feeling the contact of studs on his calf, rolled around like a dying seal in an effort to get Jô booked and the referee fell into his trap.

Caio, however, knew it was he who had in fact inadvertently made contact with his ‘keeper and informed the referee that the yellow, which would have put Jô out of the second-leg, had been applied mistakenly.

Rodrigo Caio - São Paulo x Corinthiansq
The moment at which Caio made contact with his goalkeeper, Renan Ribeiro.

After the game his team-mates, his manager and some in the press reacted with astonishing anger to his honesty. Rogério Ceni, São Paulo’s head coach, apparently tore into him in the dressing room and his central defensive partner Maicon, in a post-match interview said he thought Caio had failed his team-mates and their families. Rather poetically, Maicon stated; “I would prefer that my adversary’s mother were crying than my own.”

This simple act of fair play, which in other countries would perhaps be notable but far from controversial, has become subject of the biggest football discussion of the year.

Dozens of hours of television debate and hundreds of column inches have been dedicated to deliberating over whether he did the right thing. It has also, of course, generated the closely-linked discussion about whether victory or sporting behaviour is more important.

In a country that suffers from as much dishonesty in the realms of business and politics as it does in the footballing sphere, it has also sparked debate and soul-searching about whether wider cultural values and the morals of society are reflected in the actions of players on the field.

One of the first responses to Oliveira’s tweet spoke clearly of this feeling. “Help,” it read, “this country is going towards rock bottom. If it hasn’t already arrived there.” It may seem a somewhat dramatic response to a few actions on the football pitch, but it is a sentiment shared by many.

Tostão, the great Brazil centre-forward of 1970, is now one of the most respected voices in Brazilian football and in his column for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper he too spoke of the incident and its fallout, drawing parallels between the ongoing Lava Jato enquiry into political corruption and the negative reaction to Caio’s sincerity.

“Football”, Tostão said, “is a mirror image of society. There is foul play as well as fair play… Congratulations to Rodrigo Caio.”

It is a peculiar case but it is also a window into the current Brazilian psyche. This is a country dealing with questions of dishonesty and deception in all aspects of public life so it is perhaps natural that football should not be left behind. Tostão, in the article quoted above ruminated that; “Footballers, particularly South Americans, adore simulation and deceiving the referee.”

Hopefully, like the Lava Jato investigation has been a catalyst for change in the Brazilian political mindset, this incident can be a stimulus for more honesty and a little less deception in Brazilian football.

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