The Queensland Study: A self-feeding mechanism


According to a study published in 2011 by authors from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia, entitled “Evidence from Diving Behaviour in Soccer Players”, the diving player is more likely to ‘get away with it’ the more frequently they dive. This is counterintuitive and a pattern rarely observed in animal mimicry in the natural world, where deception is found to be less successful the more frequently it is attempted.

Diving appears to be a self-feeding mechanism: the more a player dives, the more probable it becomes that they will be rewarded. We saw one such case in the last World Cup.

Reward for Persistent Diving?

On the 6th day of the men’s World Cup, June 19th, Colombia play against Japan in the first round of the group stage. Japan score first, gaining a 1-0 advantage. At minute 36:48, Radamel Falcao (Colombia) dives just outside the box. He initiates back-to-back contact with Makoto Hasebe (Japan), then falls. There is no contact originated by Hasebe or momentum to account for Falcao falling to the ground.

Colombia take the free kick and score, bringing the scoreline to 1-1, which takes away Japan’s advantage. Nevertheless, Japan ultimately win the match 2-1. Both teams end up qualifying for the round of 16 but fail to advance to the quarter-finals.

Although this incident ostensibly has no significant bearing on qualification for the next round, it does appear to confirm the finding in the Queensland study mentioned earlier that players are more likely to ‘get away with it’ the more frequently they dive. Falcao dives 3 times in the 2 minutes immediately prior to the goal:

  • 35:36 - 1st dive results in Colombia being awarded a free kick in midfield. In this incident, Falcao’s body moves forward with more momentum than expected from the play (video clip).
  • 36:38 - 2nd dive takes place inside the box, but the referee decides not to award a penalty.
  • 36:48 - 3rd dive triggers the free kick that leads to the goal.

How to stop the self-feeding mechanism

This study proposes that there are two main reasons for this:

  1. The limited ability of referees to identify deception in real time.
  • While referees are able to identify a high proportion of dives in real time, inevitably they are not infallible. The introduction of VAR has supported them in identifying diving incidents, but there are many situations when VAR cannot be invoked (for example, fouls right outside the box, second yellow cards, etc.), leaving referees reliant on their own resources.
  • Referees could be much better equipped by being provided with scientific tools to help them identify deception in real time.

  1. The low cost diving has for the diving player.
  • A player can dive many times in a single match without being cautioned. On the other side, a single dive can create a clear advantage in form of a goal opportunity or numerical superiority when the supposed offender gets sent off. This low-risk, high-reward situation incentivises diving.
  • Increasing the potential costs of such deception by strengthening the punishments for diving is the obvious way to attempt to reverse that mechanism.

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