In November 1952, the British author H.E. Bates penned a newspaper article affectionately describing soccer as “the most beautiful game in the world,” a phrase famously adopted by Pele for his 1977 autobiography.
While this has become almost synonymous with the sport, it was never really true, even long before Bates wrote his column. During the inaugural 1930 World Cup, some of the fouls were so brutal that games like Argentina’s 6-1 semi-final win over the US left many of the American team missing teeth or hospitalized with torn lips and stomach injuries.
But as the World Cup’s iconic stature has grown over the past 88 years, its darker side has evolved, with mass brawls and broken legs replaced by a more cerebral cunning—the cynical dives and penalty box grappling which sometimes overshadows the breathtaking skills and sublime goals.
The 2018 World Cup has already seen everything from Neymar’s outrageous slow-motion dive against Costa Rica, to French defender Lucas Hernandez’s remarkably brazen admission that he was deliberately throwing himself to the turf to try and get Aussie defender Mathew Leckie sent off.
But such moments elicit different types of reactions from fans and media around the globe depending on a range of factors from their allegiance, to the result, the team’s performance, and how the incident is perceived in that particular culture.
As a result, some of the World Cup’s darker moments can be extremely divisive.
Four years ago, Brazil striker Fred was widely criticized for diving to win a penalty during Brazil’s opening World Cup game against Croatia. French striker Loïc Rémy was particularly incensed when watching the incident, calling for Fred to be “punished.”
However, following Hernandez’s cheeky confession about his antics against Australia, there has been no apology from the French camp and little criticism in the French media, save for a light-hearted video from Le Figaro. Instead, the backlash came from the US—with USA Today dubbing Hernandez, the “World Cup’s most blatant cheater”—and legions of outraged Australian fans who bombarded the French player’s social media accounts with abuse.
Hernandez’s cheating admission provoked a particular outcry in Australia, a country which prides itself on the traditional values of sportsmanlike conduct. For Australians, it’s embedded deeply into the national psyche that it’s not only important to compete hard but compete fairly. “It’s because Australian sport prides itself on the gladiatorial aspect,” Huw Bonello, a journalist for Daily Telegraph Australia, told VICE Sports via email. “No matter what the odds are against you, you play hard but always fair. That’s how you are respected.”
With France winning that game 2-1, the French response (or lack of) was yet another example of how many nations are willing to condemn cheating when they are the victims, but look the other way when their own players are the perpetrators.
“First and foremost, every country supports their own and people love to win,” Sao Paulo based sociologist Jeffrey Lesser told VICE Sports in a phone call. “So when the national team wins, their journalists and supporters are typically willing to forgive certain behaviors far more than when the team loses.”
However, in some countries such high profile gamesmanship can lead to a backlash from the team’s own supporters, especially if they’re not living up to expectations.
While Neymar is Brazil’s talisman, his constant diving has seen him become the subject of widespread mockery, even from his own fans. Some pundits believe Neymar’s antics have been magnified by Brazil’s slow start in the World Cup. “We fans…always expect Brazil to play well and to play beautiful, technical football because those are Brazil’s trademarks,” legendary Brazilian striker Marta wrote in the Guardian.
For Asian teams, such as Japan and South Korea, a certain degree of play-acting is tolerated, but if a player’s diving became a high-profile topic because it changed the course of a match, the public and media would turn on him as it would be viewed as tarnishing the country’s reputation.
“South Koreans are even more outraged than most at any perceived cheating against them,” Korean soccer expert Steve Price told VICE Sports in a Facebook message. “However, things like a Korean player diving to gain an advantage are still accepted by the Korean public. The K League was one of the first to adopt VAR but it hasn’t stopped the diving and bothering the referee, just like every other league in the world. However something more major would probably draw a backlash from the Korean public as it would bring shame on Korea.”
But while diving is relatively ubiquitous, it’s some of the World Cup’s most controversial moments of all which have particularly divided opinions on what’s deemed acceptable on a football field, and what isn’t.
In the dying seconds of Uruguay’s quarter-final clash with Ghana at the 2010 World Cup, Luis Suarez kept his country in the World Cup by deliberately handling Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header off the line. Suarez was immediately red carded with Ghana awarded a penalty to try and seal the match. But amid scenes of almost unbelievable tension, star striker Asamoah Gyan could only hit the crossbar, and Uruguay eventually went on to win in a penalty shootout.
Suarez was subsequently vilified across the world—both for his actions and his jubilant touchline celebrations after Gyan’s miss. One Journalist wondered “Why can’t football tackle cheats?” While some called for FIFA to hand Suarez an extended ban.
However to this day, Uruguayan fans and journalists view Suarez’s actions in a very different light. They regard his behavior as heroic, rather than cheating.
“We see it in a very different way,” Luis Roux, a journalist for Uruguayan newspaper El Observador, told VICE Sports via email. “Our belief is that Suarez’s intention was not cheating—like Maradona’s handball for example—but avoiding defeat. And we also see Suarez’s celebrations after Gyan missed the penalty, in a different way. Other countries, like the British, think that Suarez should have been ashamed instead of expressing his joy. Uruguayans disagree, we think it was right that he was proud of his sacrifice for the team. Ghana should have won the game, but they missed the penalty. We do not see that as our fault.”
Because of this perception, and a number of high profile incidents involving Latin American players—from Suarez to the aforementioned Hand of God in 1986 to Rivaldo’s infamous playacting to get Turkey’s Hakan Ünsal sent off in 2002—a stereotype has emerged that Latin American players are more likely to turn to underhanded tactics in crucial World Cup matches.
But is this really true? Some Latin American pundits believe so, ascribing it partly to the conditions in which players like Suarez, Maradona, and Neymar grew up in.
“You have to realize that all these kids grow up in the barrios, the poor neighborhoods,” Chilean soccer commentator Luis Tapia, who works for TV station Univision, told VICE Sports in a phone call. “A lot of them don’t even finish primary school. In Europe, many of the star players have grown up in youth academies with beautiful pitches, freshly cut grass, painted lines, readily available water, places where they feel comfortable. In Latin America, the equivalent players start playing soccer without shoes, in stones and dirt. So here, it’s the game of the ‘hood. It’s about survival. These players grow up trying to provide for their families, so they learn to do whatever it takes to make sure that you don’t lose. Other people may take it as unfair play, but it’s part of the game.”
Tapia and others point to linguistic evidence of this mentality. In Argentina and Uruguay, there’s an expression called viveza criolla, which translates as “native cunning” and refers to a culture of trying to get a psychological edge over the opposition wherever and whenever possible.
“The Spanish-speaking countries also talk about picardía, which means to be crafty, to play with your senses, use your cunning to do things the referee doesn’t see,” Diego Pena, a Mexican radio commentator for Univision, told VICE Sports in a phone call.
But not everyone agrees with this. After all, the World Cup is littered with incidents of cynical behavior from European players—in the 1990 World Cup final Rudi Voller dived to win West Germany a decisive penalty against Argentina, while a study of gamesmanship at the 2010 World Cup found Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to be among the worst offenders.
From a sociological perspective, Lesser believes that neither culture nor the legacy of an impoverished upbringing are likely to be factors in a player trying to bend the rules. He points to Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku who grew up in abject poverty and yet was commended for his sportsmanship against Tunisia in the group stages.
“This generation of soccer players are very internationalized,” he told VICE Sports. “A lot of the big Latin American stars play for European clubs. So this makes me doubt that it’s something in Latin American culture which makes a player turn to gamesmanship.”
Instead, Lesser suspects that the real answer is linked to the sheer amount of attention devoted to the World Cup across the globe.
“The players we tend to think of first when it comes to gamesmanship are the likes of Ronaldo, Neymar, the highest paid players in the world,” he says. “So maybe it’s not an accident that it’s these players who are constantly under intense scrutiny regarding everything they do, who feel like they’re being targeted by everybody. That’s tough and that probably leads to behaviors that aren’t always under control.”