By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The issue of 'simulation', more colloquially known as playacting, is one football has long struggled to confront and it has returned as a major talking point after Sunday's Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Spurs manager Jose Mourinho and United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer traded barbs over Tottenham forward Son Heung-min's reaction to being accidentally caught in the face by the hand of United midfielder Scott McTominay.
Son fell to the ground clutching his face and, after United scored from the resulting attack, was surrounded by his team mates while he lay on the pitch.
In the meantime, referee Chris Kavanagh was called to the pitchside monitor by VAR to review the incident and decided, to Solskjaer's fury, to disallow the goal.
The Norwegian said the referee had been "conned" and television pundits lambasted the decision with ex-Manchester City defender Micah Richards saying: “It’s embarrassing, this is not football anymore".
Former referee Peter Walton said the officials had got the call wrong.
Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the body responsible for match officials in English professional football, said the United player's flailing arm "wasn't part of McTominay's natural running movement and was careless".
Whatever the merits of those views in relation to the incident and South Korea international Son's behaviour at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where United won 3-1, the issue of simulation is one of the most emotive in the game.
Whether it be feigning injury to get a player booked or sent off, 'diving' to win a penalty, or exaggerating contact to ensure a favourable decision, claims of dishonesty inevitably raise tempers.
Such behaviour is punishable with a yellow card under the laws of the game, where it is covered as "attempts to deceive the referee" yet interestingly such sanctions have become increasingly rare in the Premier League.
The data suggests the key factor in the decline has been the absence of supporters over the past year.
"Typically somewhere between 20 and 30 yellow cards per season (including second yellows) were being given for diving prior to lockdown last year. Since then there have been just four, all of which were this season," says Simon Gleave, head of sports analysis at Nielsen's Gracenote.
While the absence of fans, howling their outrage at a 'dive', may be a key factor, the nature of simulation has arguably also changed.
It is rare to see players blatantly throwing themselves to the ground with most of the controversies coming after players go down following slight contact.
There are a whole range of euphemisms for such tactics - "initiating contact", "feeling the contact" and -- from the world of basketball -- "drawing the foul".
Referees may be reluctant to book players for making the most of contact and VAR showing the contact in slow motion and out of context adds to the complexity.
Burnley manager Sean Dyche has concluded that the controversies remain because the game is not interested in dealing with the issue.
"No one is really that bothered, society is not bothered really, which is an interesting one. All of my life I have known a clear link between children being brought up in schools being taught to play the right way and the rules but nobody is really that bothered," he said.
Dyche says he does not encourage such behaviour by his players but wonders if, given the wider attitude, he should still warn them against such an approach.
"No one really wants to clean it up, therefore I have got to be careful because I am going to cost my team points by telling them not to go down. Now that's a bizarre situation to be in," he said.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)