December 14, 2017

Marwin Hitz & Football’s Culture of Accepting Unsportsmanlike Conduct

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

When stock-car racing legend Richard Petty delivered his unspoken truth about the nature of competition, it’s unlikely he would have imagined how ingrained into the culture of sport his seven-word sentence would become.

Unsporting Heel or Passionate Competitor?

Judging by the standard set by Petty more than 40 years ago and the reaction to this weekend’s Bundesliga action, nobody was trying harder on match day 15 than FC Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz.

If you’ve somehow missed the controversial moment from Augsburg’s 0:1 victory at 1. FC Köln, Hitz used his cleats to grind away the surface of the turf next to the penalty spot moments before Köln striker Anthony Modeste was to step up to the dot in hopes of converting a foul call in the penalty area into a 1:0 lead for the hosts.

As you can see in the video, Hitz’s actions helped decrease traction where Modeste planted his left foot as he struck the penalty, while the keeper also made a terrific play to block the shot and keep the scoreboard blank.

Whether Hitz’s skullduggery was a significant component in what followed must be left to debate. Modeste, who has gone seven games without scoring since delivering goal in each of his first eight with Köln, still managed a fairly strong and well-targeted shot, while a strong dive and parry was required from Hitz to keep the ball from going into the net.

But Hitz cheated.

And he knows it.

On his lightly used Twitter account, Hitz offered an apology to anyone reading as well as directly to the offended club, saying “I want to apologize for my actions before the penalty. That was not ok & will not happen again!”

The apology will remain an empty gesture, with the fact that it was delivered in fewer than 140 characters perhaps standing for its insignificance. FC Augsburg will keep their three points in their continued effort to climb out of the relegation zone, while 1. FC Köln will take a second semi-controversial home loss of the season and continue to worry about having been held scoreless in seven of their last eight matches (counting a second-round loss in the DFB Pokal).

"Penalty? I'll be there in a moment."
“Penalty? I’ll be there in a moment.”

The DFB is similarly unmoved. Citing FIFA statutes,German football’s governing body has announced that no punishment will fall upon Hitz as what he did falls under the header of “unsporting behavior” and not “crass unlawful conduct” by rule.

Fan reaction will predictably fall under somewhere “now every keeper will do this on every penalty” and “this is nothing but sour grapes by the losers,” though most will just shrug it off with a “That’s football,” and file it with the many dives that draw free kicks and the uncalled jersey tugs that prevent shots on goal without punishment.

In the absence of a clearer stance from FIFA or the DFB on the matter, it’s hard to say that any particular opinion on it is either wrong or right. What is clear, though, is that we are far too deep into plain acceptance of the presence of unsporting conduct in the game and not nearly close enough to a point where the game’s governing bodies are prepared to take action to minimize these incidents.

You’re sportsmen. Why are you cheating?

Let’s be clear: Marwin Hitz is a dirty cheat.

Let’s be clear about something else: Hitz was not the only player on that pitch in Müngersdorf to willfully attempt to subvert the rules of the game and/or the spirit of competition during the contest. In fact, Hitz wasn’t the only cheater involved in that particular incident.

The only reason play was stopped by Daniel Siebert so Hitz could dig his heels into the turf at RheinEnergie Stadium is because Philip Hosiner flopped to the turf in the penalty area with two Augsburg defenders closing on him. While it’s not possible to know with 100% certainty that Hosiner intentionally went down via his own volition after the ball bounded off his shin and headed out of reach, all appearances would seem to indicate that a penalty kick was not the right call there.

Contact? Maybe. A dive? Almost certainly.
Contact? Some. Exaggerated? Quite a bit.

Markus Feulner, who was a bench player doing some stretching behind the Augsburg goal, even earned a yellow card for entering the field of play to join teammates in vehemently informing Siebert of his mistake in not having seen Hosiner’s deception. Similarly, coach Markus Weinzierl was sparing no volume in letting the fourth official know that he didn’t agree with the call.

About six minutes after Augsburg players and coaching staff celebrated the successful defense of the penalty, Dominik Kohr, who was among the FCA players vehemently objecting to Siebert’s call of a foul on his midfield teammate Daniel Baier, flopped to the ground just outside the Köln penalty area. The resulting free kick was taken expertly by Raul Bobadilla, giving the visitors the only goal of the game.

Neither Weinzierl nor any of his players appeared to be quite as annoyed at Siebert’s misperception in this case.

Except in the moments where it directly benefits them or their team, everyone seems to agree that simulating contact in order to win free kicks or penalty shots is completely unwanted within the game, but the closest we’ve come to action taken to eliminate “diving” is adding the awarding of a yellow card for “simulation” to the tool kit of the referee.

This might be a reasonable step toward eliminating diving, if only the difficulty of the referee’s task in these situations wasn’t complicit in the existence of diving in the first place. Even the best-positioned official in any given moment has just one angle on a play. It is always possible the man being asked to pass judgment has the best-possible angle, but even then it’s a limited view, which means contact can always be happening out of his sight. Additionally, we’re dealing with some of the best athletes in the world doing things at full speed that are simply difficult to see clearly with the naked eye.

And the players know it.

In general, it’s probably a lot easier to fool a referee into thinking a foul has occurred than it is to handle an incoming ball while moving at full speed in order to elude two defenders doing everything to impede your ability to get a shot onto goal.

Who is to blame for the decision-making process that would lead a player in Hosiner’s position at that moment for pulling his feet up from the ground, throwing his arms in the air suddenly, and yelling out as he tumbles downward the very moment he believes he will be unable to convert the difficult opportunity into a goal?

  • Public pressure from the fan base of a team desperate for a goal.
  • Hosiner’s own professional situation in which he’s hoping to make an impression with 1. FC Köln to maybe win more-consistent playing time and perhaps even a permanent move at the end of his loan from Stade Rennes.
  • Teammates relying on all individuals to always do anything and everything possible for the elevation of the collective.
  • A football culture where such behaviors are likely coached by the same sort of men who will, after a game pivots against his side on a questionable penalty, complain openly to the media about the officiating decision.

All of those and more, but what is at the root of all of it is money. Though actual cash is unlikely to be at the forefront of thought in any given moment while playing a match, it’s influence is omnipresent and multifaceted.

Hosiner was certainly aware of his club’s table position and how well European spots are within reach of most of the Bundesliga table’s mid-section, not to mention the direct relation between his own personal income and sporting success, which is often measured for strikers in simple terms of goal-production. If a little flop wins a penalty that results in three points for the team, isn’t the risk of a yellow card beyond worth the potential payoff?

The same goes for Hitz, too. The specter of relegation must be haunting the thoughts of many at FC Augsburg these days. The fiscal realities of a drop from the first division to the 2. Bundesliga may not be known specifically by the players, but they have an idea of them. If a little heel dig into the turf increases the chance of taking points in a road match which later make the difference between bottom three or not, could Hitz be blamed for not being overly worried about some negative public opinion?

As long as the likelihood of getting caught remains so low, players will not be deterred from taking advantage of the inefficiencies of how the laws of the game are adjudged and enforced, especially when the risk-reward equation balances so heavily in favor of “reward.”

In fact, it’s become so widely accepted that players no longer require the intensity of a crucial situation to be inspired to dive for a penalty.

Earlier this year, with his team cruising at 3:0 in the 77th minute against an 1. FC Köln team still mostly defending rather than trying to get on the scoreboard, Robert Lewandowski felt a push in his back while in the penalty area and immediately looked for a soft spot of grass for his fall. Neither Lewandowski nor FC Bayern need the help of unsporting behavior in getting goals, in general, but in this specific incident . . . well, why would the league’s most-dangerous goal-scorer take a flop?

The answer must be that the well-timed dive has become an accepted element of the sport. Lewandowski was not in an ideal scoring position when he went to ground. As a striker, he also rarely sees a yellow card, so the risk of accumulation for him is virtually non-existent. Hell, if you’re up by three, you can flop and then defend yourself to the referee with, “Why would I dive? We’re up by three!”

But Lewy dived anyway and got the call, and Thomas Müller made it 4:0 from the spot. The added goal to Bayern’s goal-differential will play no role in their title chase, nor will it add value to Müller in future contract negotiations, considering he’s easily among the top players in the world. The goal-against could theoretically have a negative impact on the season-end fate of 1. FC Köln, but the odds of that are slim.

Spahic’s right hand was not the reason Modeste was unable to make this play.

Besides, the Lewandowski incident wasn’t vastly different from a call that went Köln’s way in a pivotal moment in a win over Hamburger SV.

Or do you think I’d forgotten?

(Okay, Modeste seemed to genuinely fall without actually diving in that case, but he certainly didn’t volunteer any information to help Deniz Aytekin realize that the slight push of Emir Spahic wasn’t crucial in the loss of that goal-scoring chance.”

“That’s football!”

It’s a two-word phrase that has become the rote reaction to this element of the game. You can’t even type it without mentally shrugging your shoulders in response.

But the authorities shouldn’t take “That’s football!” to mean that we’re all happy with the situation. It’s more a resignation that nothing is going to change, making fans feel powerless a football match becomes more about treachery than it does about athleticism, skill, or the deployment and execution of sporting tactics.

It would seem to be the most-obvious opportunity for FIFA to take steps to minimize, if not eradicate, the scourge of diving from the game that you have to wonder why it’s not top priority.

The obvious joke here is that between legal issues with regard to World Cup awarding and arranging for future bribes, FIFA has bigger fish to fry and would be too self-aware of the irony of trying to deal with underhandedness in the game of soccer on the pitch while trying to profit from exploiting it outside the boundaries of law and ethics for financial gain away from the action of competition.

And the more fans just accept unsporting behavior as “part of the game,” the less motivation anyone has to enact measures to combat widespread cheating. Even better, everyone seems to agree that we’re just as happy to let the administrators of the games, the game officials, act as scapegoats. After all, it’s their job to get things right, isn’t it?

Even as everyone demands the perfection from officials they wouldn’t expect from themselves or anyone else around them, everyone knows full well how difficult the task of the referee is. All you need to know about that is how difficult it is to find officials at the lower levels of the sport. Think about all the reasons why you, yourself, aren’t out being more involved with the sport by becoming an official and realize why we’d all be much better off pointing the largest share of blame elsewhere. Namely, those who fight to keep video review out of the sport.

Video review? It’ll ruin the game!

Okay, I should qualify my stance here. I’m not (necessarily) talking about using video replay for helping with any and all officiating decisions in a football match. In fact, I’m not even talking about using video during live action to help with most calls, though I do believe there would be some minimally intrusive ways to leverage technology to aid in officiating the game.

Otherwise, what is the argument against the introduction of video review to help make the game better . . . assuming we can all agree that eliminating unsporting behavior in deciding game outcomes would be “better”?

Even if you don’t use video replay in the down time between Hosiner’s flop and Modeste’s slip to determine that there was no foul and that the best course of action would be to award Augsburg a free kick, rather than allow the penalty to be taken, a midweek review of the game tape would give the DFB enough evidence to suspend and fine Hosiner for conduct detrimental to the league.

Yes. “Detrimental to the league.”

If I may speak as an American-born long-time non-believer and relatively recent convert to religion of Fußball . . .

The Bundesliga is (finally) looking at the United States as a desirable market for its product. One of the biggest perceptions the league will have to fight with sports fans here is the notion that “soccer” players are continually diving and faking injury, which is considered not only unsporting, but un-macho.

Do not underestimate the importance of manliness in sports to a huge segment of the US sports fan.

Sidebar: Hey football-loving ladies, please understand that I’m using terms and ideas here that I recognize to be fairly misogynistic, but I’m guessing that any of you reading this have encountered far worse behavior from males challenging your interest in sport. Please understand I’m not wanting to enable such behavior, rather pointing out it exists as a barrier in some crucial ways. Plus, when I don’t think of “manliness” in this sense as an opposite to “womanliness.” Anyhow . . . back to the topic at hand.

Even without worrying about bringing in new fans and/or making it all about what the Americans want (Does it always have to be about the Americans? Am I right?!), don’t the dedicated, passionate fans of the game around the world deserve better effort from the governing bodies? I don’t think we would need to take a poll to know that the vast majority of fans would support better enforcement of the laws of the game and using whatever resources available to reduce the unsportsmanlike conduct within it.

Frankly, I find it irresponsible for FIFA and its member associations to continue to ignore reasonable solutions for such highly visible problems. Detractors will speak of “tradition” and the “human element,” while ignoring how much tradition and humanity has been allowed to be washed away by the wave of money overrunning the sport the last few decades. The least they could do is help get things right on the field.

Angry at the offenders? Look closer to home.

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Were those three incidents the only bit of cheating or unsporting behavior in the 1. FC Köln-FC Augsburg match? Of course not. There were the obligatory moments of exaggerating injury in effort to help the referee consider delivering a yellow card to the executor of a tackle throughout the match and the ones that linger to help take more time off the game clock late in the match. Though I don’t recall any specifically, there likely were those “tactical” or “professional” fouls where a player intentionally grabs or tackles a player from behind in order to prevent a bigger opportunity from taking place, usually when the offender realizes he’s about to be caught out of position without coverage.

All these smaller fouls in less-intense situations contribute to an erosion of the integrity of the game.

Rather, they would erode the integrity of the game, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve collectively made winning and losing so important that almost nothing else has a chance of owning a narrative. We may roll our eyes a bit when players obviously feign injury, but we’ve otherwise come to just accept the practice. We even often praise players for their cunning in taking advantage of the grey areas of the sport’s laws because winning is so important.

Can you imagine playing football with your child and encouraging he or she practice faking being tripped in order to draw a penalty? To actually instruct them to be deceitful while participating in sports?

Of course you cannot (or, if you said you could, consider outsourcing the majority of your child’s instruction, if you please). So why would we ever praise a grown man for doing it?

In this sense all are complicit in the elevation of the importance of results over integrity, sportsmanship, and even the sheer joy of sports for the sake of being sporting.

And we all can help create a demand for a solution. After all, it was neither a coach nor a player (and certainly not a football association president) who gave us that famous quote at the beginning of this section, the one we all heard employed endlessly when playing sports as children and young adults.

No, it was famous American sports journalist Grantland Rice who put together those words and gave the sports world its most-fundamental axiom.

It would be a shame to have to amend “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” with something along the lines of “Unless there is a lot of money involved.”

It’s up to us, the fans, to remind those in charge that those values remain important to us.

Assuming they still do . . .

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.