Eduardo Arsenal 2008/09

Today’s crop of football pundits like to suggest that referees can’t truly understand football unless they’ve played the game at the highest level.

This notion is commonly parroted when referees get it wrong when a player has gone over the ball in the tackle. Spotting this shady piece of malevolence is apparently impossible unless you’ve scuttled around the midfield at the highest level, probably for Liverpool.

All nonsense of course, since the majority of viewers can instantly tell when a shaven-locked enforcer has unleashed a cheeky reducer.

Yet the pundits who have rushed to label Arsenal’s Eduardo a cheat this week and scorn his manager Arsene Wenger for refusing to accept that his player dived, have all largely missed the point.

There’s a world of difference between the kind of “tackle anticipation” that Eduardo executed so neatly on Wednesday night and a premeditated collapse when no contact was ever likely.

To be honest, I’ve no issue with diving in football anyway. It’s an offence like any other in my book, no better or worse that shirt-pulling, obstruction or handball. Except, there can be an art to it and it’s up to the referee to stop it and defenders not put themselves in situations where refs can be deceived.

But there are certainly two different categories.

The other famous Arsenal incident that pundits love to recall – Robert Pires against Southampton in 2004 – would certainly fall into the more serious category.

Then, Pires went looking for contact, stuck his leg into the defending player and went over. There was little the defender could have done better to avoid the incident and Pires certainly cheated a little to gain an advantage.

The Eduardo situation is different – like, to be fair to him, many of Steven Gerrard’s largely-ignored collapses.

Had Eduardo not hit the deck at the Emirates on Wednesday night, he would have been almost criminally negligent to his duties as a top-class striker.

He had done well to latch onto an Eboue pass and bear down on the Celtic goal, but the angle was hopeless and he couldn’t possibly score.

The most natural thing in the world for a striker to do in that position is to stretch, nudge the ball away from the goalkeeper and wait for contact. In Eduardo’s position, to do anything else would have been stupid.

And in the manner the forward arranges his weight to get the crucial touch and position himself for impact, it’s inevitable he may already be on his way to ground before contact happens.

In this case, Artur Boruc managed to halt his slide before any real impact was made with Eduardo – though the video doesn’t conclusively prove the goalkeeper’s legs didn’t make slight contact.

Eduardo, for his part, was probably slightly surprised that contact didn’t come. He looked a little surprised that the penalty was awarded.

Then he did the professional thing, dusted himself down and stuck it in the net.

To try to paint the incident as something that hasn’t happened hundreds of thousands of times before in penalty areas at every level, all over the world, is ludicrous.

As is the subsequent witch hunt of the Croat. Wenger was right to defend him.

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