It might have lost some attention due to the Jurgen Klinsmann hiring on Friday but one of Major League Soccer's initiatives finally began to show its value this week.
Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio was fined $1,000 and suspended for one game by the league for his dive against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 23. He sat out his team's 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew last Saturday.
With the punishment, Saborio became the first player in league history to be suspended for diving. The ban represented another step in a league-wide crackdown on the play that started at the end of last season.
“What you're seeing is the result of months of efforts on the part of MLS and the two federations: U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association,” said MLS director of communications Will Kuhns in an interview with Goal.com.
According to Kuhns, feedback from coaches, referees and players led MLS to highlight diving as a point of emphasis heading into the 2011 season. Referees, coaches and technical directors were invited to a preseason seminar in Florida where the new agenda was discussed.
Prior to the season, the initiative was presented to players and a warning was issued: the league would be cracking down on diving in 2011 like it never had before.
The first example of this crackdown came in June, when D.C. United forward Charlie Davies was fined $1,000 for a cynical dive which won his side a late penalty kick in a match at Real Salt Lake.
The message had been delivered but, as one would expect, the act of simulation was not entirely expunged from the league with just one fine.
And so, when Alvaro Saborio went to ground and replays showed little-to-no contact from San Jose's Bobby Burling – earning his side a PK and Burling a red card – it didn't take a clairvoyant to see that Saborio was in line for league retribution.
“Obviously the fine to Davies was not enough to eliminate it (diving) altogether because we saw another example just a few weeks later,” Kuhns said.
The suspension puts MLS in rare company in terms of leagues which suspend players for simulation. Italy's Serie A is another, as Juventus winger Milos Krasic was given a two-match suspension last fall for diving.
Along with its Italian counterpart, Kuhns hopes MLS can become an example across the world for attempting to stamp out something that has long been viewed as one of the true black marks on the sport.
There are certainly challenges, as UEFA found out in 2009 when Arsenal won an appeal against a suspension doled out to Eduardo after an alleged dive in a Champions League match.
Following the decision, UEFA released a statement which said, “Following examination of all the evidence, notably the declarations of both the referee and the referees' assessor, as well as the various video footage, it was not established to the panel's satisfaction that the referee had been deceived in taking his decision on the penalty.”
Players and fans may find it easy to point out a dive, but something so subjective is oftentimes difficult to police.
Kuhns was also quick to point out that the crackdown on diving is not without a counterpart on the opposite side. He noted MLS has also spotlighted persistent infringement by individual players, as well as clutching and grabbing by defenders on free kicks and corner kicks as points of emphasis.
“Part of this is that the referees need to protect the offensive players as well. You can't do one without the other, otherwise all you're doing is rewarding the physical defenders,” Kuhns said.
It may be unrealistic to expect all acts of simulation to be completely eliminated from the league, but some important initial steps have been taken. The hope is that, in time, the MLS's initiative gradually starts to weed out the divers who bring numerous plays in the league into question.
“It would be unlikely and unrealistic to expect that every player on every team will change this particular behavior overnight. I think it's going to be perhaps over the course of a couple seasons,” Kuhns said.
If the initiative comes off successfully, it will be a huge win for MLS and, with any luck, could become the blueprint for similar undertakings by leagues around the world.
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