Public tastes and attitudes change over time, and English football is now intensely relaxed about the notion that any contact between defender and attacker equals penalty. The moral panic about the ‘imported’ blight of diving has subsided, and sympathy for the defenders involved in marginal penalty calls seems in short supply.
When you pause to consider it, penalties are quite a harsh punishment not always commensurate with the offence committed. More than three quarters of them result in a goal, and in a low-scoring sport that has a considerable effect on results. This was probably a necessary inequity in the game’s formative years – to maintain a balance of power between attack and defence and prohibit players from hacking away at opponents whenever danger presented itself.
In the haste to clamp down on simulation, rule-makers were confronted with the slippery issue of trying to define what is a dive and what is not. They settled on the idea that contact was the key distinction. As the International Football Association Board Laws of the Game 2018-19 put it: “If an offence involves contact it is penalised by a direct free kick or penalty kick.”
The line has to be drawn somewhere, but it is plain to see that this definition is a little simplistic. What if the contact is minimal, such a hand on the back? What if the attacker has initiated the contact himself, such as the oft-quoted and infamous piece of gamesmanship by Arsenal’s Robert Pires against Portsmouth’s Dejan Stefanovic in 2003?