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29th Apr 2018

Raheem Sterling’s denied penalty claim shows the long-term effects of diving on how referees officiate

It was a stonewall penalty

Reuben Pinder

It was a stonewall penalty

Manchester City were rampant victors at the London Stadium this afternoon in a meaningless exhibition of football. They had a scare when Aaron Cresswell pulled one back for West Ham with a curling free kick, but the champions reacted by doing what they do best: scoring two more beautiful goals.

And truthfully, West Ham were lucky to lose by just the three goals. Man City were denied a stonewall penalty when the West Ham goalscorer Aaron Cresswell brought down Raheem Sterling after the City winger sold him with a perfectly executed chop.

Cresswell’s trailing leg brought Sterling down, but the referee awarded West Ham the free kick, judging Sterling to have gone to ground too easily.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter; City still won, they’re still champions, and there will be no great consequences. However, it exposed an issue with how referees judge these incidents. They’re second guessing themselves, determined not to be conned by a dive, which leads to them letting defenders who commit fouls off the hook.

Whatever your moral stance on diving, whether you think it’s a cardinal sin that warrants a 10 game ban, or whether you take the stance of accepting it as a form of gamesmanship that is a permanent part of the game, there is no denying that simulation has caused referees to alter their approach to contentious decisions.

Attackers who dive have arguably let down their fellow attackers who don’t, by planting the seed in the mind of the referee that they are always looking for a penalty. We saw a similar incident last weekend, as the most fouled player in the Premier League, Wilfried Zaha was taken down by Watford defender Adrian Marriapa, only to be given a yellow card for diving.

The crux of the issue is that diving is very rarely black and white. Occasionally, a player will go down having not been touched, which can be categorised as a pre-meditated attempt at deceiving the referee. But in most cases, attackers are impeded, and either knocked off balance due to the speed they are moving at, or they feel the need to go to ground.

Last season, Sterling found himself in this sort of situation and was not rewarded for his honesty. As he ran through on goal against Spurs, Kyle Walker – still at Spurs at the time – deliberately pushed him in the back. Sterling remained on his feet, got a poor shot away and gained nothing from staying up.

Don’t be confused though; today, he was fouled and did not fall unnaturally, but it’s important to remember that if an attacker goes down ‘easily’ it does not mean they weren’t fouled.

It’s a minefield with no obvious solution, but today’s incident showed that referees are wrong to assume the worst of the attacker. Sometimes, it’s just a penalty.