Amidst the clamour and glamour of a fantastic World Cup in Russia, the ugly spectre of play-acting and simulation was always lurking. PDP Assistant Editor, Jon Hoggard, considers the impact of cheating on such a big stage, and uses observational learning theory to highlight the importance of removing it from the game.


It’s the 17th minute of the World Cup Final. You’re dribbling at an angle towards the opposition box, with their well-drilled defensive line alert and ready, and your strikers are marked. You sense an opposing midfielder approach to your left – in a split second you have to decide whether to pass, dribble, evade the challenge, or dangle a leg to guarantee contact and hit the deck. You choose the latter, and your nation scores from the resulting free-kick. Goal! World Cup here we come! Cheating!

Cheating is a strong word. Am I calling Antoine Griezmann a cheat for what he did, above? Well, I guess I am and maybe a little harshly – he’s certainly not alone in acting that way. And, as acting goes, at least his was pretty convincing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved this World Cup. The underdog stories, high-scoring games, surprise knockouts, passionate fans, welcoming hosts, and general spirit of the tournament have all been fantastic. The quality of the social media memes has been reflected in the quality of the football! But there has been one lurking shadow – a blot on the landscape of an otherwise gorgeous World Cup: cheating.

There’s that strong word again. Constantly swept aside by pundits and commentators as ‘the dark arts’, being ‘a bit cute’, or ‘streetwise’, some behaviours have been rife throughout the tournament and, despite the promised clampdowns from officialdom, went unpunished and affected outcomes.

But why should we care? After all, some of the best players in the world have made a career out of diving and getting away with ‘the dark arts’. In the end it comes down to values, and the impact ignoring these values has on young players and the future of the game.

Valuing fairness

The main value being trodden on at the World Cup was: fairness. When a player dives, feigns injury, scuffs up the penalty spot behind the ref’s back, wastes time or argues with the ref, they are acting contrary to the laws of the game. It’s as fundamental as that. Law says one thing, players do another – and are not consistently punished for doing so. This is simply not ‘fair’. (For more on values, make sure you read James Vaughan’s article in this edition of the magazine.)

If the laws of the game change, and these traits become skills to utilise within the game, then that’s fair enough. It’s fair! But until then, a law broken in order to influence the outcome of a match is only one thing: cheating.

The play-acting and simulation of Pepe, Neymar, Lucas Hernandez, and others, was a constant irritant. In fact, it was pathetic and an embarrassment to the sport. Neymar in particular was singled out for ridicule following his – well, ridiculous – roly-poly play-acting and faked injuries. To the point where it’s now possible to ‘do a Neymar’, while #NeymarChallenge has taken the world (even Wimbledon) by storm! For one of the most talented players in the world today, surely there’s a better legacy than to lend your name to an overreaction? When you consider Cruyff will be immortalised by ‘his turn’ in centuries to come, or to bang in a banana free-kick will always be doing ‘a Roberto Carlos’…what a shame.

But ok. Here’s why it really matters. When millions of young people are watching this tournament and see their idols regularly breaking the rules, what impact might this have? Consider this – Neymar, Griezmann, Pepe et al were not taught how to cheat in training. No whiteboard instruction in the dressing room. It’s a learned behaviour. It is essential, therefore, to break this habit so that the chain of learning this behaviour fails.

Observational learning theory

Everyone remembers Rivaldo’s faked facial injury at the 2002 World Cup, and Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’. So it’s not a modern problem, but goes to show how generations of players have passed on cheating as an acceptable skill to the one below. In both those examples, those players went on to become world champions. No lessons learned there, kids! And now Griezmann.

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s observational learning theory suggests that people (called ‘performers’ by Bandura) learn new skills by observing others. Performers do this by creating a mental picture of the skilled movement; learning through demonstrations; and copying from a role model.

There are four stages to Bandura’s theory:

  1. Attention – Performers need to watch a suitable demonstration of the skill. This must be aimed at their ability level, performed correctly by a role model or competent peer.
  2. Retention – Creating the mental picture of the skill required.
  3. Motor Production – The physical movement to perform the skill. Performers must have the ability to be able to repeat the skill either first time or through a series of progressions.
  4. Motivation – The learners need, want or desire to replicate the skilled action.

Let’s apply these 4 stages to consider the impact on a ‘performer’ (a younger fan/player in this case). The ‘skill’ being analysed will be play-acting/feigning injury – a common and often unpunished behaviour.


A young player, avidly watching the World Cup, sees multiple instances of players feigning injury. They see common elements of this skill – awaiting contact; a throw of hands into the air/to the face/clutching the ‘injured’ area; an open-mouth scream; falling to the ground; multiple rolls.

Furthermore, this skill is on display by ‘a role model or competent peer’ – Neymar, say, or Pepe. We cannot underestimate the importance of role models on a young player’s development. So, this youngster sees a world renowned player do this and get away with it and, potentially, is aware enough to see how it impacts the game: the clock ticks down towards 90 mins, a yellow card awarded to the ‘fouler’, or a penalty/free-kick given. The ‘skill’ has been positively reinforced.


The young player replays what they saw in their mind. They may even play-act the observed skill themselves, to see how it ‘fits’. They can imagine themselves in a similar scenario and acting that way – after all, Neymar did it.

Motor production

The young player is on the pitch. They hold a narrow lead and need to hold out. Whoops, a touch on the shoulder – and they put their new skill into practice. The muscles learn the movements, the sequence of neurons needing to fire to produce and reproduce the skill smoothly. It is honed over time.


The clock runs down while the youngster rolls around hurt and their team wins 1-0. No one directly congratulates the young player for the impact of their skill, but they know internally that it worked towards the team’s win. The skill has been linked intrinsically to victory and that feeling of success. They will do it again.

Breaking the cycle

It’s so important to break this cycle of observational learning. The way to achieve this is to pinch number 1 and number 4 on the above list. You have to stop ‘Attention’ – i.e make it impossible for younger players to see their role models act this way. Probably easier said than done with a click of the fingers.

Which leaves number 4 – motivation. This is the one we can influence as coaches, and the one that can be targeted by the higher powers in football. The motivation to cheat can only be combatted by disciplining those who do it. And that means cracking down on all forms of it, which I’ve described briefly above.

Changes within the game

Fortunately, some higher powers within the game are taking note. Although VAR could have been used to spot a few more cases of foul play, at least its introduction was a step in the right direction to curbing this behaviour. FIFA technical director Marco Van Basten, meanwhile, has publicly criticised Neymar’s antics:

“If you are acting too much I think everybody will understand that it’s not going to help you. I think he [Neymar] personally should understand his situation.”

However, he then went on to suggest that Neymar was frustrated because well-drilled defences were making it difficult for playmakers to have time and space with which to influence the game. Sorry, but that’s no excuse, Marco. This is a constraint – the adaptation needed is not to roll around screaming.

Likewise the English Football Association announced in 2017 that they would hand out retrospective 2-match bans to anyone caught diving or simulation.

It’s up to these higher powers in football to use all the technology on offer to identify and clamp down on these behaviours. This may remove the motivation to cheat, which will then prevent the next generation of players from witnessing and learning these ‘skills’.

Your own environment

For those of you reading who coach the junior game, then you have the best chance to rid the game of these behaviours. Remove the motivation by highlighting poor behaviours when you spot them, and create a culture where ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality doesn’t prevail, as this will place pressure on players to bend or break the rules to secure those wins.

Kids don’t get taught to cheat, they see it happening and learn that it’s ok. They see that it goes unpunished and can win you games. This summer they saw that with luck and perfection of this ‘dark art’, it may even win you a World Cup.


Cover Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Popular searches: defending, finishing, 1v1, playing out from the back, working with parents