Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Guilty of Diving, or Simply Being Picked On?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Guilty of Diving, or Simply Being Picked On?

Article excerpt

The new calendar year opened without Gareth Bale in the lineup for Tottenham Hotspur. The winger was banned and, in effect, branded a cheat.

Gareth Bale is the strongest and most consistently effective winger in the English league today.

He is the player for whom Real Madrid would gladly pay EUR 40 million, or almost $53 million, to buy. The January transfer window is open, but Bale's employer, Tottenham Hotspur, will almost certainly resist, at that price, for this season at least.

The Spurs are in the running to qualify for the next Champions League. Bale is their most potent weapon, by far. And though he will possibly move one day to Madrid, he is too precious to Tottenham right now.

There's the rub. The new calendar year opened Tuesday without Bale in the lineup. He has no injury. He is not in any sense a foul player. Yet he was banned for New Year's Day -- banned and, in effect, branded a cheat.

Bale is definitely more sinned against than sinner on the field. Every stride he takes is hounded by two or more opponents whose purpose is to stop him any way they can. He is fast enough to outpace most of them. He has energy to burn. He has muscle that can sometimes make the fiercest challengers bounce off him and, at the same time, make the ball obey his touch.

Some player. Some athlete. Some temperament.

So who calls him a cheat? Three referees, in separate matches, decided that the Welsh winger had dived -- deliberately gone to ground to try to win a penalty or a free kick by exaggerating a defender's aggression.

The third of those calls came last Saturday, when Bale went down in the penalty area at Sunderland. He was too quick for Sunderland's Craig Gardner in the 80th minute of play.

Soccer, remember, is a contact sport. You are allowed to tackle an opponent -- indeed, if you shirk that, your coach and your colleagues want to know why.

There were two, brief contacts by Gardner on Bale. The first was as their knees brushed one another. The second was by the defender's arm across Bale's torso.

Down went the Tottenham man. Up went referee Martin Atkinson's hand with the yellow card. The Spurs expected a penalty kick; instead, they were penalized. And the total of yellow cards for Bale meant that he missed the game against Reading on Tuesday.

"That's three times now that I've been clipped, and booked for no reason," Bale said after the match. "People keep saying I'm diving, but if there's contact, it's not diving. Referees need to look more closely."

They do look. Everybody looks at contentious incidents time after time, in slow motion replay after replay. Often those replays are so indecisive that they blur the issue -- while touching bodies can be detected, intent is guesswork.

Even Bale's insistence that, because they touched, he was victim and not perpetrator is hard to prove one way or the other. "If there's contact," he said again, "what can I do? What do people want me to do, hit my head on the floor? I have to put my hands down to protect the fall. …

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