By Ewan Roberts
Joan of Arc, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Aung San Suu Kyi, and, now, Gareth Bale. The Welshman added his name to the roll call of the erroneously persecuted this weekend, having been wrongfully accused of diving, not for the first time, in Tottenham’s 2-1 win over Sunderland.
Driving into the Black Cats’ box at maximum velocity, hurtling towards goal like a runaway train, Bale was the subject of a double foul. Craig Gardner not only slammed into Bale’s knee, he also half-blocked-half-grabbed the flying winger’s arm. There was no attempt to play the ball, the only target was the man, and he duly toppled to the floor.
No penalty, said referee Martin Atkinson, and Bale was yellow carded – his fifth this season, which will rule him out of Spurs’ home tie against Reading on Tuesday (that sound you can hear is Shaun Cummings breathing a loud sigh of relief).
Bale’s crime? Being too fast for the opposition, but not quite quick enough to out-run the toxic reputation for simulation that stalks his every move. The Welshman now carries with him the repugnant odour of a cheat, and the narrative of his despicable dives has permeated the global refereeing psyche. His reputation has sentenced him before he even steps on the pitch.
All opposition players need do is screw up their face in mock outrage, throw out their arms in feigned bemusement and look pleadingly in the direction of the referee in order to ensure Bale is booked. The legitimacy of the foul has become irrelevant, replaced by a pre-defined notion of Bale’s character (or lack of).
“That’s three times now I’ve been clipped and booked for no reason,” said the former Southampton player after the match. “People keep saying I’m diving, but if there’s contact it’s not diving. Referees need to look more closely.”
There’s an oft-cited logic that a man possessed with as sturdy a frame as Bale (he’s 6ft 1 in), and with a body more commonly found in the pages of Homer’s Iliad that could have been carved by Michelangelo himself, should not hit the deck under such minimal contact, that it would take a challenge as savage as Roy Keane’s infamous assault on Alf-Inge Haaland to floor such a powerhouse.
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Gardner’s challenge was a world apart from the incident that cemented Bale’s reputation as the Premier League equivalent of Qiu Bo. Earlier in the season, against Aston Villa, the Welshman threw himself to the floor as the onrushing Brad Guzan pulled up before engaging him. It was a blatant dive that left Tottenham fans cringing in the terraces.
Bale is certainly not without fault, and has overdramatised dives, arching his back and flailing his limbs. But at the Stadium of Light, such theatrics were designed to highlight contact rather than fake it, and were totally at odds with his histrionics against Villa as well as an earlier dive from team-mate Jermain Defoe which, ironically, went completely unpunished. And why wouldn’t it? Bale is the diver, not Defoe.
The Spurs winger, having met with representatives with the refereeing body to discuss the subject, now finds himself in a no-win situation: he either continues to anticipate contact and is accused of diving, or he leaves himself exposed, takes the hit and risks sustaining the punishment and injury that blighted his early career.
What Bale needs is protection, not vilification. In Spain, with talents such as Bale-alike Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel “not quite as good as Godfrey Chitalu” Messi, the league’s greatest assets and entertainers are preserved, sheltered and wrapped in cotton wool. They’re free to dazzle without worrying about Charlie Adam trying to break every metatarsal in their foot or rupture every ligament in their knee.
But while Bale remains on British shores, and while he plays in the robust and physical Premier League, he cannot expect any special dispensation or protection. Rather, as Ronaldo and Messi do, he must trust in his ability to do more damage with the ball at his feet than cascading through the air, he must look to punish players with his left boot rather than by earning a dubious free-kick.
Bale is far from the biggest culprit in the league, he is simply the current poster boy for the latest crackdown on diving. But the longer his unfairly tarnished reputation is smeared, the harder it is to appreciate his brilliance – a brilliance Britain is unlikely to behold for much longer. So admire him while you can, before he’s rampaging up Iberian flanks.
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