The Men Who Fall to Earth

Viveza Criolla and the Misunderstood Art of Diving

Diving is seen as anathema to the British principles of fair play and good sportsmanship, but perhaps there's something to be gained from a little more openness to football's dark arts.

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Events in June won't have left everyone satisfied, but there are still reasons to be cheerful for those disheartened by Brexit. British multiculturalism is reported to have 'failed', but a moment of isolationism can't undo the good achieved through years of looking outwards.

Our openness to foreign influences has enhanced our music, our food and – despite predictable post-tournament hand-wringing that foreign imports obstruct homegrown talents – it's even improved our football. For proof of this we need only look at the Premier League, for the self-styled 'best league in the world' is also the world's smallest, warmest melting pot. Our pursuit of the finest foreign players, managers and methods has seen the British approach to football fuse with the unfamiliar, and improve immeasurably as a result.

By opening up our footballing borders, the Premier League has become the intersection of graft and flair, a place where Karl Henry meets Thierry Henry, where route-one and rabonas can co-exist peacefully. But if pre-match pizza and post-match gateaux have been replaced by more enlightened practices, there remains one foreign export that will never be tolerated here: diving.

Invariably viewed as abhorrent, diving's brand has remained uniquely toxic in Britain despite its re-launch as 'simulation'. Our response to diving is so reflexive that it permits no discourse on the topic – and certainly no dissenting mainstream voices. Instead, we have a familiar and unproductive consensus that it's morally unacceptable.

But, to play devil's advocate, is it right to be so dismissive of diving? What if, by assigning moral significance to it, we're just looking at it the wrong way? To find the answer to these questions, we must turn towards Latin America.

Just as in Italy, British ex-pats brought football to the region by founding embryonic sports clubs in Argentina. Searching for a taste of home, such burgeoning institutions enabled the new arrivals to socialise with other Brits and stage games of cricket, and later football. While the former attracted a modest following from local Anglophiles, the latter caught the imagination; the beautiful game soon spread across the River Plate and beyond.

Football's rules and regulations would quickly take root, but the Corinthian virtues that accompanied the game did not follow suit. Latin America may have had an appetite for a new sporting pastime, but it had no interest in an unfamiliar set of cultural values. After all, it already had its own; it already had 'viveza criolla'.

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Loosely translated as 'native cunning', viveza criolla is the art of roguish deception; a special form of smartness that, in the words of anthropologist Eduardo P. Archetti, encourages a "capacity to cheat where necessary". Ostensibly an anathema to the British principle of fair play, viveza criolla is not just the root of diving and theatrics, but the artistry and invention associated with South American footballers.

To understand viveza criolla, one must work backwards to 16th-century Spain and the 'picaresque' literary tradition. Written in the form of realist fiction, the picaresque novel is packed with anti-establishment, subversive sentiment whereby the 'picaro' – effectively a working-class hero – deftly sidesteps responsibility and defies 'the man', relying on the one resource in their possession: their wit.

When transferred from page to pitch, the picaro's rascality manifests in feints and dribbles, skills universally admired and imitated. But, just like diving, these are ultimately forms of deceit and thus expressions of viveza criolla. This common thread of deception that ties dribbling to diving is central to the debate on whether we're misunderstanding on-pitch theatrics, for while Latin America accepts that the two are related, we see them as separate: one is 'good', the other 'evil'.

Our ultra-moralistic take on the game can, rather haughtily, be held up as the 'right' way to do things. Not only is this presumptuous but it's arguably the exception rather than the rule; it's not just Latin America where bending the rules is the norm. In Italy, for example, the artful cunning of viveza criolla simply goes by a different name – 'furbizia' – but, just as in Argentina, it encourages footballers to indulge in acts of deception.

Viveza criolla has commonalities with furbizia, but the latter feels more the result of a forensic analysis; practitioners seemingly scan football's rules and regulations in the search for loopholes, then use these to gain a competitive advantage, no matter how small. The spirit of viveza criolla drives Messi to manipulate the ball and fool his marker, but furbizia, in the words of Italian writer Andrea Tallarita, "differs from all other techniques ... it is the only one which does not involve the ball".

Furbizia manifests in diving, but also in tactical fouls, quick freekicks and time-wasting. In aggravating Zinedine Zidane to the point of violence, Marco Matterazi demonstrated exquisite furbizia; he probably didn't even mean the things he said, it was simply a verbal step-over, a type of deceit that fooled one of the greatest exponents of more conventional deceptions.

However, viveza criolla and furbizia are not universally welcomed in Latin America and Italy; detractors claim they legitimise corruption on and off the field. According to Professor John Foot, author of 'Calcio: A History of Italian Football', "Cheating is not seen as morally wrong, just as pushing into a queue ... or failing to pay your taxes is not morally wrong". But, if furbizia and viveza criolla are expressed en masse, it disrupts systems that rely on compliance.

The Economist claims that the spirit of viveza criolla underpinned Argentina's economic policy under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The former President of Argentine apparently believed the country, "could play by its own rules, rather than those of economics or the rest of the world". But what works on the pitch does not work with complex domestic and international economic strategies; Kirchner now faces a slew of corruption charges, which she emphatically denies.

Interestingly, Kirchner's refusal to confess is also representative of another aspect of native cunning and one that compounds British hatred of divers. Anecdotally, the men who fall to earth consistently refuse that they've done anything untoward, let alone worth apologising for. Why? Because, in the words of Andreas Campomar, author of '¡Golazo!', "escaping punishment is in many ways equal to the very act of deceit".

This is observable in Luis Suarez's refusal to accept that he bit Georgio Chellini ("I lost my balance") and Sergio Busquets' take on his own catalogue of outrageous tumbles. When asked to explain his crimes against gravity, Busquets channelled his inner picaro, claiming, "It's not play-acting...it's being smart". To those with a heightened sense of fair play this non-apology is infuriating; but it's only hard to process if one persists, as we do, in viewing football in terms of right and wrong.

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Busquets' attitude is perhaps more understandable when one considers how a diver's admissions of guilt can be treated outside Britain. During the 2004/2005 season Gianluca Zambrotta was castigated in Italy after he dived to win a penalty for Juventus. Yet Zambrotta's crime was not the act in itself but the unexpected confession that followed. His mistake, according to Professor Foot, was in, "making cheating public" when he simply had nothing to apologise for. This may be entirely alien to our own standards, but that doesn't make us 'right'.

There's evidence to suggest viveza criolla is a much-needed component for those seeking victory. After all, many of its most infamous exponents – Diego Maradona, Sergio Busquets, Marco Matterazi – have not just won countless personal accolades, but the greatest prize in football: the World Cup. This isn't to say that Britain should suddenly become 'picaresque', but we could at least temper our revulsion towards diving. After all, we have no moral authorityon what is a truly global game.

By labelling diving as definitively 'abhorrent' we don't simply shut down discussion on surprisingly complex phenomenon: we force a moral significance on an act that simply doesn't exist in the mind of its practitioners. As such, it's also slightly pointless. Like our love of a crunching tackle or a striker chasing a lost cause, diving is the manifestation of a different set of cultural preferences, and our reflexive intolerance of it is closed minded. This, admittedly, is quite a tough sell, but perhaps there's something to be gained from being open towards football's dark arts. You never know, it might even help us win something.