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On Second Thought

Soccer is the beautiful game except for one thing: flopping

Whenever a player goes down, you have to wonder whether there is any acting going on.
Whenever a player goes down, you have to wonder whether there is any acting going on.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

If the Revolution beat the Columbus Crew Sunday, they’ll advance to the MLS title game. During these sports-starved times, Bruce Arena’s lads have gone about their business mostly under the radar and now are being duly rewarded with some late-autumn sunshine.

Futbol forever struggles for market share around Boston, even now, when the spunky local FC has proven to have decent chops, even now, with Arena, a man who has five MLS titles dotting his curriculum vitae, expertly pulling the strings.

The Revolution no doubt deserve more attention, but we have said similar around here as far back as the mid-’70s when the Boston Astros, with Helio “Boom Boom” Barbosa their marquee striker, framed our pro soccer discussion.


It’s 2020, and we are a long way from the American Soccer League, the rickety bleachers of Alumni Stadium at Boston College, and the proud, ragtag sons of John Bertos.

But are we . . . are we really?

One thing that has marred futbol forever: diving. Wired deep into the game’s culture, it lingers as the big ugly zit on the delicate, sculptured face of the beautiful game. The on-field histrionics sometimes turn the pro game into a mangled WWE-like mashup best fit for Jerry Springer’s former bouncers to work the whistle and flash the dreaded yellow and red cards.

If only. Imagine the TV ratings if those deputized Springer stage hands were to reach down and collar even one of the rolling, wincing fake artists?

If you’re tuning in Sunday for the first time this season, or perhaps for the first time since, say, the Nixon Administration, it’s pretty much a given that a player or two, or possibly a handful, at some point will drop to the ground, writhing in pain like Regan MacNeil, the possessed 12-year-old played by Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (which debuted, only coincidentally, when the Astros played their home games on the BC campus).


In her most disturbing scenes, the demonic Miss MacNeil levitated above her bed, spewed vulgarities, projectile vomited a thick green puke, flipped around like a ragdoll, and then — wait for the showstopper! — sat upright in bed while her head spun a full 360 degrees, accompanied by grinding crunch of bone and sinew.

Ladies and gents, we give you pro soccer. Maybe that’s a bit extreme for an MLS playoff game, but it’s certainly not to be ruled out if, say, Portugal were to face Spain for FIFA’s Coupe de Monde. No fakes too blatant for the big one.

Soccer flopping, much like cinema, is an art form, and some of these guys are Julliard School worthy, the primo fakerinas of the sports world. Technically, the fakery is called “simulation,” but here in the US the vernacular is “diving” or “flopping.”

Was this soccer player touched by the defender before he fell down, or were theatrics involved?
Was this soccer player touched by the defender before he fell down, or were theatrics involved? Sergio Mejia/Getty

Those same terms, by the way, are very much part of the NBA and NHL dialogue. Both leagues have spent the last 10 years or so trying to clean up their act, realizing how damaging all the fakery can be to their corporate brand.

Worth remembering, it took the NHL decades to come to a similar realization about bench-clearing brawls, fights that sometimes spilled into the stands and down the hallways. There was far less diving in those days, because fakers back then were aware the fine to be paid was to be mopped around the rink by the scruff of their sweaters.


Overall, the NHL is a better product without the punchfests, but swift vigilante justice had its merits. It’s a good bet the threat of being pummeled would clear up soccer diving way faster than the flash of a yellow card or a fine.

The NHL today tags its fake artists with two-minute penalties and deals out fines on an escalating basis, up to $5,000 per incident. In a majority of cases, the two-minute penalty is offsetting, with the ref, as an example, tossing out the player who provided the hook, as well as the joker who dressed it up by falling to the ice as if he’d been dropped from the arena rafters.

Actually, being dropped from the arena rafters might be a more effective deterrent than the matching deuce or the $5k hit to the wallet. We can only dream.

Flopping happens in the NHL, too. Brad Marchand got an embellishment penalty for this fall in a 2014 game against the Devils.
Flopping happens in the NHL, too. Brad Marchand got an embellishment penalty for this fall in a 2014 game against the Devils.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The NBA, with much higher player salaries, also ratchets up the cost for repeat flop artists, with a top fine of $30,000 per incident. Again, not much of a deterrent. The pay is so absurdly high now in the NBA that a chronic offender probably wouldn’t blink until the fine reached, maybe, $250k.

“Basketball is a crafty game,” Ronnie Nunn, ex-NBA ref and onetime director of officials, years ago confided to The Guardian. “In terms of fooling the referee, flopping is part of its art and culture.”

Ditto for soccer. Players flop and roll in agony, as if in need of an ambulance, hoping to hook the referee into issuing a card, then pop right back up as if nothing happened. In 2011, about the same time as the NBA and NHL, MLS began tagging offenders with fines.


If fines have worked, they haven’t worked sufficiently, no doubt in part because the field is massive and players are clever enough to time their falls out of the ref’s clear view. They’re sharp-eyed pros, in every sense of the word.

The sorry truth here is that MLS is a very good product, one that can stand quite well on its own two feet. If only it could convince some of the working help to do the same.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.