Hockey vs soccer – toughness vs embellishment

UPDATE: LeBron’s been watching Klinsmann videos on YouTube. From last night’s Heat v Bulls NBA playoff game.


This has been floating around the internet during the Stanley Cup playoffs…

Generally with  a tag line that runs along the lines of ‘hockey players are tough, soccer players are wimps.’

You’re always going to get this comparison from North American hockey fans and to some degree, there is merit to it. Hockey players are among the toughest athletes in any sport. Period. By my standard of toughness anyways. Your may vary.

And yes, to the annoyance and embarrassment of most soccer fans, there is way too much simulation in the game still despite measures that have been taken to curtail it.

But soccer players don’t roll around on the ground after getting fouled, or after having pretended to have been fouled, because they’re not tough. It has nothing to do with toughness. It has to do with the risk/reward ratio of being caught and the culture of acceptance amongst the fans of those doing the play acting.

Goals are rarer in soccer than hockey. Getting a yellow for simulation is still relatively rare. So the reward for diving in the box and embellishing it by rolling around is quite high (chance for a penalty kick which has an 80%+ chance of resulting in a goal and/or a yellow or red card for the defender adjudged to have committed the foul) compared to the risk. Even if a striker gets a yellow for simulation it’s so much easier for a striker to avoid getting a second yellow than it is for a defender to avoid getting another yellow as strikers initiate contact with opponents far less often than defenders. So the downside is pretty low to throwing yourself to the ground and rolling around.

The NHL has also started calling simulation penalties on players who are embellishing when hit or tripped. It’s a great, early response to the emergence of the problem in hockey and with four officials on a surface that’s about a quarter the size of a soccer field not much is going to fool or escape the gaze of the officials.

The rationale for embellishment in hockey is that it leads to power plays and with top teams scoring on over 20% of man advantage opportunities and even strength goals generally harder to come by in the playoffs the risk/reward ratio starts to look tempting. After all, the Canucks scored three of their four goals on the power play today and only had 13 shots on goal the whole game. Was there embellishment on any of the calls? No but one of the Sedins engaged in some of the smartest gamesmanship you’ll see by firing a pass directly onto the stick of a Shark player who had just hopped onto the ice. The problem was that the player he was replacing was still on the ice and it resulted in a too many men on the ice penalty (which the Canucks scored on). Just as many home fans at soccer gams applaud drawing a penalty kick by one of their own players as being ‘smart’ , most savvy hockey fans think Sedin (don’t remember which one it was) as a genius for drawing the Sharks into taking that penalty. Nobody sees that as an argument over toughness…

The other downside, or risk, that hockey players face when caught ‘faking’ is the wrath of their own fans. Culturally, in North America, and in particular Canada I think, we just don’t accept that as being a legitimate means to an end. It taints the game too much and hits too close to the part of our national psyche that prides itself on fair play. In other parts of the world, it’s all fair in love, war and football and home fans see embellishment as something that has to be done because everybody else does it and if you don’t…you’re a sucker and a sucker who doesn’t want to win badly enough.

So in soccer everybody hates it when a player flies through the air having not been touched at all and then rolls around in the hopes of getting not just a free kick or penalty kick but also a yellow or red card for their opponent. But they’re not doing it because they’re not tough. It’s not about toughness. It’s about realizing they are more likely to be rewarded for this behaviour, both by refs and their own fans, than they are punished and vilified by those same arbiters of the game.

There’s no shortage of soccer players who get a similar gash to the one in the picture above and keep playing. And while I, like many sports fans, marvel at the ability of hockey players to keep playing through a variety of injuries that would put most people in a hospital bed, and they may indeed be physically tougher than almost any other athletes in terms of pain tolerance and a refusal to complain about injuries of use them as an excuse for their play, it’s an over simplification to say that makes them tougher than soccer players who dive and roll around on the ground.

What soccer needs to learn from hockey isn’t how to make it’s players tougher but how to make the risks of  simulation and embellishment of fouls too high to even consider. The NHL is nipping it in the bud, FIFA is trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

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14 Responses to Hockey vs soccer – toughness vs embellishment

  1. cutleron says:

    Agree with the problem, but I totally disagree with the solution. Sanctioning simulation is an insult to the referees’ professional competence and buys into pre-modern ideas about justice. It reinforces the idea that referees should call the result and not the cause. They should call the action that will cause a trip, whether or not the player falls (taking an advantage into account, of course). They should call the high stick, not the blood. Simulation should be irrelevant if referees have any competence and pride in their work. Then simulation will go away. (Of course, hockey has taken a step in the right direction by providing enough referees in the right positions to call that stuff.) It wasn’t a problem in Britain because referees would just embarrass the player by waving him to get up and wagging a finger at him. Now, if we could only get British referees for CONCACAF games.

    • Gregor says:

      Refs in both sports have always had the ability to call fouls that fall into the ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ area so I don’t think this is something new or insults their ability.

      I agree that if refs were able to consistently delineate between foul and fake they would not have to fall back on punishing the blood instead of the high stick but the reality is that they have too much ground to cover, the game is getting quicker and the players are getting better and better at simulation. It used to theatrical Klinsmann like dives that are laughed at these days. Now it’s much harder to tell.

      • Colin Elmes says:

        Simulation is anti gladiator and offends our manhodd here in North America. I dont enjoy seeing it in our game but the desperation of some of these players and teams to gain small advantages( goal threat free kicks, yellow cards to change how a particular player must play physically) is too compelling for some. It is somewhat cultural but is spreading in the game because of its globalisation. And I agree with Gregor, field size vs speed of game vs the cunning of the modern player(not all thankfully!) makes a remedy very difficult. Extra officials? More punishment for simulation? All good questions.

      • Gregor says:

        I think in Canada it’s more the anti ‘fair play’ than ‘anti gladiator’ aspect that bothers people more but, yes, that is a factor when you hear Joe Thornton played last night with a separated shoulder. That does have a pretty big ‘wow’ factor here.

  2. joel hunt says:

    It drives me nuts seeing the anguish on a players face while holding their knee when they fell on their arse….

    I suppose I understand the motive to gain every valuable advantage….I guess for me the solution that would satisfy me is simply better acting.

    ; )

  3. Burr says:

    Wow… you are comparing shooting a puck to an illegal player to draw a penalty should he happen to touch it, to throwing yourself to the ground and pretending to be hurt? This issue has nothing to do with toughness, I agree with that, but it has everything to do with class and sportsmanship. If you are willing to ACT hurt to get a penalty, you have no class. Period. There is no rationalizing it.

    • Gregor says:

      Are you saying that firing a puck to someone on the other team who’s just stepped on the ice in the hopes they touch it and you get a cheap too many men on the ice power play is classy and a good example of sportsmanship?

      Both are trying to work the rules because the reward:risk ratio encourages that behaviour. Do I support the behaviour? No. Not in soccer and not in hockey.

  4. Nomena says:

    I dont think you can compare toughness in Football and in Hockey.
    In both sport, there are tough players. Thats it.

    You seems to be a fanatic hockey fan. And you dont know much about football.
    Football players have only two protections: the shoes and the shin pads. Thats it.
    And its rules do not encourage violence or very bad contact.
    They play 45 minutes witout interruption.

    Hockey players is over-protected. And they cant play more than 3 minutes span.
    I saw Alex Kovalev plaing football in Montreal but he was not as fast as he plays in hockey.
    He was very slow in a football field. And maybe a football player is not as good as he is is in football field when plaing hockey.

    Most of European hockey players wanted to play football but they couldnt made it. In Hockey you just need to skate and you will be given all the protections you need from the foot through the head.

  5. I’d like to see pro leagues doing video reviews and suspending players for simulation as well as tougher sanctions by referees with one caveat. It is one thing for professional refs with linesmen to deal with this – it is higher risk if amateur refs are given more tools as they can get in wrong too often.

    • I meant to add that ideally that there will be a trickle down effect to the amateur ranks if it can be eliminated from the pro game (as much as possible) should be a benefit. But it will never fully go away.

  6. Chase says:

    So the best way to win is to cheat in soccer? Get hit, do super big embellishment, get free shot? And you said fans are ok with wimpy embellishments?

    • Gregor says:

      You need to read what I wrote more carefully. I didn’t say it’s the “best way to win” or that “fans are ok with wimpy embellishments”. I explained why it happens and how acceptance of that behaviour varies through different cultures. It’s just not an indication of toughness. Lots of soccer players play through injuries similar to hockey players without making a fuss. That’s more an indication of toughness if people insist on making those comparisons.

      Overwhelmingly in North America embellishment is the most despised part of the game.

  7. Nick says:

    the refs in soccer should review the foul just like hockey so they could see if they have dived or not

    • Gregor says:

      I used to be more of a purist and didn’t favour technology infringing too much on games but I’m now on board with VAR for goals and agree with what you’re saying on fouls. It’s ruining games as far as I’m concerned so video replay availability for refs would not only allow them to get calls right but it could totally cut down on the number of dives as players know they are more likely to be caught by the video and get a yellow.

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