In As You Like It, William Shakespeare wrote that ‘all the world’s a stage’, and footballers from Azerbaijan to Timbuktu have been keen to prove the bard’s point out on the pitch for years. The precise moment that play acting in football become prominent is unknown, but you can bet your bottom dollar these days that a weekend’s fixtures cannot pass without at least one player being accused of feigning injury, going to ground too easily in a tackle or engaging in generally deceptive behaviour.
As fans of the beautiful game, should we simply accept our fate and recognise play acting, in its various forms, as part of the sport, or should we be rallying against it by lobbying football’s governors to clamp down on such nefarious behaviour?
What Is Play Acting in Football?
We can label anything under the heading ‘deception in football’ as play acting. Diving, in its own way, is play acting because it attempts to con a referee into giving a free kick or penalty while booking an opponent – often ‘divers’ hit the ground from the very smallest of body contacts.
The most common form of play acting is the exaggeration that comes after a tackle. You will have seen it – the individual clutching their knee/shin/ankle after a tackle, writhing around in pain on the floor. They aren’t hurt, of course, but act that way in a bid to get an opponent cautioned or even sent off.
A more modern form of play acting is when two angry players go, literally, head to head, touching foreheads while intently staring into the others’ eyes. More often than not, one will go down like they’ve been shot to simulate that they have been head butted.
There is a serious side to play acting too – football’s own ‘the boy who cried wolf’ tale. If players keep hitting the deck pretending they are hurt, what happens when they are actually suffering but nobody takes serious notice? Howard Webb, the former Premier League referee, referenced Fabrice Muamba’s life-threatening heart attack when he spoke of the need to end play acting to ensure that players suffering a serious injury or illness can be spotted quicker.
What are the Rules on Play Acting?
The body that decides upon rules in football is called the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and they have specified that play acting should be punished by referees. Under Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct, IFAB confirms that a player can be booked for unsporting behaviour – one form of which is an ‘attempt to deceive the referee, e.g. by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation).’
A second definition of what constitutes unsporting behaviour – ‘shows a lack of respect for the game’ – could also be covered by play acting and its various types. Under the rules of IFAB, there’s no mechanic by which a play acting player can be sent off – unless, of course, it’s their second caution of the game.
Famous Play Acting Moments in Football
More than a dozen yellow cards were issued for diving during the 2022/23 Premier League season, with goals also chalked off when simulation was detected. The problem with play acting is even more prevalent in continental Europe and South America, so there is no shortage of moments of deception in the beautiful game.
Play acting is one thing, but to do it on the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup – is quite another. But there have been countless incidents of deception despite the global audience of billions watching on, with Rivaldo’s acting at the 2002 World Cup in a game against Turkey worthy of Academy Award recognition.
He was waiting to take a corner, which a Turkish player wanted to accelerate by firmly kicking the ball in Rivaldo’s direction. Despite clearly hitting him in the leg, the Brazilian went down clutching his face in agony – cue worldwide ridicule and a £5,000 fine for its thespian.
You couldn’t fault Newcastle United’s Steven Taylor for thinking on his feet during a Premier League game with Aston Villa back in 2005. The Villains were about to score a goal when Taylor clearly blocked a shot with his hand to prevent it from hitting the back of the net.
But in one of football’s most unintentionally funny moments of deception, Taylor clutched his stomach and fell to the floor – trying to con the referee into believing that the blatant handball he had witnessed was merely an illusion. Thankfully, Barry Knight refused to be deceived and showed the defender his marching orders.
The worst offences of play acting, or certainly the ones that draw the most ire from fans, are those where the player admits their guilt. Who can forget the 2006 World Cup, where England were drawn against Portugal. Wayne Rooney lost his temper and hacked down Ricardo Carvalho, before being wound up by his Manchester United colleague, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rooney gently shoved CR7, who reacted like he’d been hit by a runaway train. Once the English striker had been sent off, Ronaldo looked over to the Portugal bench and winked – earning him the ‘winker’ moniker from the media. And, how could we forget Sergio Busquets’ ‘peekaboo’ moment in a Champions League game between Barcelona and Inter Milan back in 2010?
The midfielder does take a stray hand to the face from Thiago Motta, but the contact is minimal and would not be enough to put a fully ground adult on the turf. But Busquets seizes the opportunity to try and deceive the referee – given away only be parting his hands from his eyes to see if the match official is watching.