Italian diving team an unsavoury prospect for casual footy viewer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

Yes, I know. Canadians and Americans are not supposed to talk about soccer, at least not with any authority and certainly not in a place like Hong Kong where we have so many international folks who are so well schooled in the beautiful game.

However, the simple truth is that if you live in Hong Kong and own a TV, you can't avoid soccer because it's 24/7 on the tube. So I figure you can either fight it, meaning live without TV, or go with the flow.

That's why many of us North Americans know who Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry are. Some of us even know who Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson are. But, like you, none of us know or even care who the top team are in US Major League Soccer.

For us, soccer is largely the English Premier League (EPL) and why not. The talent is world class, the presentation is even better because none of the stadiums have running tracks around them so the legion of pasty faced fans in full cry are literally right on top of the action.

Throw in the fact that the top teams have foreign ownership, Americans at Manchester United and Liverpool and a Russian at Chelsea and even the most hard-core English footy fan could see why we neophytes would take an interest in their beloved game.

But by far the most compelling reason for watching the EPL is the grit. Players in the EPL largely refrain from the diving and histrionics on the pitch that often resembles the ludicrously overwrought antics of professional wrestling.

The fans in the UK simply won't tolerate it and God bless them for that.

Of course, how they play the game in the UK differs greatly from the game in Spain and Italy. But don't take my word for it; listen to someone who has an intimate working knowledge of the Italian game.

On the eve of their Champions League match against AC Milan, Japan's Shunsuke Nakamura warned his Celtic teammates to be on the lookout for the Italian diving team.

Nakamura had spent three seasons with Serie A side Reggina and was unabashed in his aversion to the Italian way. 'I'm not one to dive, but their strikers will be looking for penalties,' he said. 'If the strikers go past you, all it takes is the slightest touch and they will hit the floor. This is where Scottish and Italian football differs. You don't often see diving in Scotland, and if somebody does the crowd shouts 'cheat'.'

Nakamura is my hero. I could not have said it better myself. I know Italy are world champs and congratulations for that because they were full value for their victory. But I cannot watch a Serie A game and I guess this is what makes me a casual fan of soccer.

The hard-core footy fan shrugs and sees the artistry behind the flopping. When I see someone carted off on a stretcher only to return like a frisky colt 20 seconds later, it makes me ill and often hostile.

All of this came to light this past week as the top teams in Europe faced off in the Champions League round of 16 elimination match-ups. Among the more unsavoury spectacles was a brawl at the end of a match between Italian side Inter Milan and Spanish team Valencia which ended in a draw but saw Valencia advance on away goals.

All of the match reports said it was a without flow and a particularly chippy affair with much diving and histrionics. And this was a surprise? It could have been the most sublime display of football known to mankind and I still would not have regretted missing it. The fact that it ended with the particularly cowardly episode of Valencia's David Navarro, not even suited up for the match, breaking the nose of Inter's Nicolas Burdisso while he was being held by someone else and then proceeding to sprint off the pitch like a rabbit on steroids put an almost appropriate exclamation mark on the game.

Valencia face stiff penalties as well as certain suspensions and will likely be shorthanded when they play Chelsea in the quarter-finals.

As far as Nakamura's diving prophecy, AC Milan were not that badly behaved against Celtic and the reason was that they really did not need to flop. They could have played for two days straight and it is doubtful Celtic would have scored.

As spirited as the Scottish side were, there was clearly a gulf in talent between the two teams and it was no surprise when AC Milan netted a late winner. Now they take on Manchester United and if somehow they get by them and meet Valencia in the next round, I'll have to count on getting the score from one of you hard-core footy followers.

A match-up between Valencia and AC Milan is a perfect invitation for a casual soccer fan like me to bail out.