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Previous World Cups brought an assortment of winks and nods, but this time it's being openly conceded that taking a tumble is part of the Beautiful Game. If football has its version of five-tool athletes, one of those tools is the ability to plop on your keister as if someone had actually touched you.
Since the 2014 World Cup got underway in Brazil, I've heard flopping discussed on the ESPN telecasts and read analyses online and in newspapers. I've seen America's failure to field a world-class team attributed to a national reluctance to take a pratfall.
"The practice of the flop is a tried-and-true method of manipulating each game's referee to make calls go your way by aggressively exaggerating fouls or the appearance of fouls." explained thewire.com's Eric Levenson. "The benefit—as Brazil's Fred showed on the opening day of the World Cup—can be as decisive as an occasional undeserved penalty kick. However, American-born players rarely flop and aren't great at selling their falls. The prevailing theory why that is? Flopping is dishonest and . . . un-American."
Fred's flop put flopping on the table. The debate wasn't over whether Fred flopped; it was over whether the flop was so egregious that the ref should have let play continue. Instead, he blew his whistle; a penalty kick, a goal, and a 3-1 victory for Brazil over Croatia ensued; and the question was posed in all its amorality: if you don't flop, can you win at soccer?
The New York Times response ran under the headline, "Where Dishonesty Is Best Policy, U.S. Soccer Falls Short."
Said the Times: "For better or worse, gamesmanship and embellishment—or, depending on your sensibilities, cheating—are part of high-level soccer. Players exaggerate contact. They amplify the mundane. They turn niggling knocks into something closer to grim death.
"They do all this to force the referee to make decisions, with the hope that if he is confronted by imagined bloodshed often enough, he will ultimately determine he has seen some. Applying this sort of pressure on the official is a skill that, by their own admission, United States players generally perform poorly, if they perform it at all."
Players flop in the NBA, of course, but it's not the same—there's far too much scoring in basketball for any one flop to be decisive. Even so, flopping is regarded as such a blight on the league that violators are fined. (The fines are chump change, given NBA wages, but that means we despise the perps all the more.)
Americans prefer to manipulate referees through methods that are culturally indigenous. For instance, we prick their consciences. That grimace of pain that flickers on an American athlete's face mid-game is not caused by a leg that was just broken, but by every American's birthright—a deep, innate distress at injustice. The grimace asserts a wrong that only a makeup call can put right. Americans further manipulate refs by inquiring during lulls in the action about their wives, children, and recent fishing trips. American athletes take advantage of the fact that they're darn nice guys and refs like them. Whatever the sport, foreign athletes can't head down that road because they aren't as likeable. Besides, the World Cup ref they hope to butter up probably speaks a different language.
The argument for the football flop comes down to this: You'll never get what you don't ask for, so claim maximum damages and let the judge sort it out. It's an ancient, tried-and-true approach to jurisprudence that harks back to the day when God himself made the calls.
For instance, a papal army was faced with a knotty problem in 1209 AD when it overran the southern French city of Beziers during the Albigensian Crusade and then had to distinguish the 200 Albigensians, who needed to be put to death because they were heretics, from the 20,000 townspeople who weren't. One of the knights asked Arnaud Amaury, the papal legate, for direction, and Amaury's wise reply continues to ring through the ages:
"Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius!"
Kill them all! God will know his own!
And it was done. Let us not disdain the tribute paid to piety and tradition by a flopping soccer player when he asks higher authority to decide what is just.