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.