Perspective | Who says women’s soccer players don’t dive?

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — I’m here for the diving. All of the dives in the 2023 women’s World Cup. During my indoctrination into the beautiful game while Down Under, I’ve been keeping track of two things. One is how many Australians and Kiwis have chosen to walk around with terrible haircuts. The preferred style around here is the tresses version of a ute. Or just picture A.C. Slater’s hair if he had asked his barber for a closer fade on the sides.

And the second thing I keep spotting: the fact that women — yes, women — dive in soccer, too.

Coming into this tournament, I didn’t think flopping was part of the culture in the women’s game. Mostly, that belief has been proved true as I’ve watched players maul and mash each other, only to climb back to their feet and play on, foul or no foul.

Take that Australia-France quarterfinal. The action was so physical, French forward Eugénie Le Sommer kept going with what looked like a bloodied and broken nose. England’s Alex Greenwood, after taking an elbow to the face during the Lionesses’ quarterfinal against Colombia, spent a few minutes on the ground checking for all her teeth. That same match, Colombian teenage sensation Linda Caicedo’s pursuit of the ball led to so many trips and shoves that I was genuinely surprised she didn’t need to borrow Iván Alejo’s stretcher.

This is what I’m starting to love about soccer. This and the penalty shootout: a player standing alone, away from her teammates, with the fate of the match riding on her foot. It’s as though the folks who invented the game chose chaos, drenched it in randomness, then candy-coated it in agony and said, yes, this is the proper way to decide a winner.

But before a match gets to penalty kicks, there are more than 90 minutes of brutality to enjoy. And the women’s game provides plenty. I asked Swedish midfielder Hanna Bennison why it appears women don’t flop around after contact as we so often see in the men’s game.

“I don’t know. Like, it’s never been a thing. So I just think that we just play as we want,” Bennison said. Then she added with a sly smile and laughter: “And maybe we are tougher, I don’t know.”

In that case, Brazilian superstar Neymar could learn a thing or two from the women. Dude screams and drops so much that you worry he’ll need his legs amputated before halftime. But that’s just his cunning, if overly dramatic, way to draw the referee’s whistle. Anything to get a foul — and an advantage over his opponent.

Complain all you want, but that’s just competition. And the higher the stakes (i.e. the money), the greater the necessity to maybe not cheat the game but possibly manipulate it.

“[Women] have always played for their love to play soccer. The men’s [players] did from the beginning, but then there’s a lot of money [involved now], and you have to win because you’ll get a lot of money,” said Magnus Wikman, an assistant coach with Sweden. “That way I think women’s soccer, they just want to play. They want to play soccer. They don’t think in that way. Maybe in the future, it’s going to change because there’s going to be more and more money in women’s soccer.”

Wikman’s theory about purity in the women’s game echoed an earlier one shared by former U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath. In 2015, she explained to USA Today why women don’t dive.

“Maybe women are less dramatic than men. … We have this authentic feel to the sport because you don’t see that, and it is a lot less questionable for the referee when you see a tackle,” Heath said. “I am proud the sport gives off that because [cheating] can be an annoyance to fans and teams as well.”

Soccer is all-out combat played in short shorts and shin guards, and women’s footballers seem to accept this fate with honor, understanding that their legs will look like carved-up pastrami by the end of every match. Diving just isn’t in their DNA . . . I thought. But then I kept watching the World Cup closely and noticed, like aggressive mullets down here, diving was everywhere.

While trailing by two goals in the quarterfinals, Japanese forward Riko Ueki was dribbling into the Swedish box, a wall of yellow-and-blue defenders around her, when it appeared she had mistaken the pitch for a swimming pool.

The moment earned her a penalty kick and a spot on the all-diving team.

During the round-of-16 match against Nigeria, England’s Rachel Daly worked herself deep into a dangerous position when she suddenly felt the urge to audition as a stuntwoman for the next Bond movie.

Maybe acting’s not in her future after all, because VAR didn’t buy her somersault of glory and overturned the penalty.

Even earlier than that, Argentine Estefania Banini didn’t go full Neymar against South Africa in the group stage, hitting the ground and rolling herself into meme gold, but after absorbing slight contact she did demonstrate the proper way to stop, drop and roll.

It was one small dive for Banini, one giant flop for womankind.

I want to live in a world where soccer federations everywhere pay their women’s and men’s national teams on the same scale. Equality in sports begins with money and opportunity. But there are other small yet still significant ways to celebrate fairness in sports — such as a woman flopping, rolling herself into an imaginary carpet and then being judged purely by her conduct on the field. And not by her genetic makeup.

When a woman in sports does something unpleasant during competition, an overflow of sexist and misogynistic backlash follows. She’s called everything but her first name in the comment sections as mostly male fans turn to their basest instincts. The same thing happens with minorities because some fans can’t criticize without revealing themselves as racist hooligans emboldened by internet anonymity.

But isn’t it nice to know that women are capable of the same silly tactics men have used for generations and fans can roll their eyes, say “that’s soccer” and move on?

They can be mocked for diving without fans reaching for the low-hanging fruit of gender-specific insults. Criticism isn’t a bad thing when it sticks to the confines of competition — evaluating only what happens on the pitch and in the stadium. So it was great covering the Japan-Sweden game in person, watching Ueki get tripped up by a nefarious blade of grass and then later noticing on social media, or better yet, not noticing a single word typed about her looks, her race, her gender. Only her dive.

This World Cup will be remembered as the most-attended women’s sporting event in history. But I also hope we’ll remember it as the moment when women found equality in flopping like the men. That’s what soccer players do, and women shouldn’t be maligned if they do it, too, simply because they have an additional X chromosome.

So dive on, sisters! And, FIFA, feel free to use that slogan for the next World Cup, with Daly’s forward flip as the official logo.

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