Column: And the Oscar goes to ... Soccer cheats!
PARIS—Clearly, the Oscar will go to the wrong guy. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, best actor? Pah! What about Dani Alves or Bryan Carrasco?
If those names don't sound familiar then, like Hollywood's academy, you've not been paying attention. You don't need to sit in a dark room with popcorn to see great acting. It is showing now at soccer stadiums around the world. Players who pretend an opponent attacked them, who suddenly drop dead only to make Lazarus-like recoveries moments later, who writhe like a tub of eels in faked agony on the field, these are the thespians who give soccer a bad name.
The aim, of course, is to con referees, to swing a game by getting opponents cautioned or sent off or by winning undeserved penalties and free kicks. Cheating, pure and simple, and a blight on the sport.
Not all pros stoop so low. Lionel Messi is their standard-bearer. Because of his speed and skill, Barcelona's little forward attracts more than his share of nasty tackles. But rarely does the Argentine make a song and dance of them.
Not all soccer actors act well. Type "Hamit Altintop worst dive ever" into YouTube. Not only did the Turkey midfielder's "Help! I've lost all control of my legs!" plunge in Croatia's penalty box on Nov. 11 fail to fool referee Felix Brych, but the slow motion replays made Altintop look silly for attempting such a stunt.
Soccer could combat this dark art on three fronts. Referees should yellow card ham-actors more frequently (Altintop's dramatics went unpunished); soccer bosses must become intolerant of such cheating; and flagrant offenders should be pointed out and shamed into changing their ways.
Or be forced to get their actor's card.
Working on the principle that Academy Award organizers cast their net too narrowly by looking only at film actors, we assembled a jury of crack Associated Press sports reporters to select our own Oscar winner from soccer. Feel free to email the address below if you don't like our choice or have your own winner.
Without further ado, here are our nominees for Best Actor/Actress in soccer, 2011, are:
--Alves, Champions League semifinal, April 27. Think of Willem Dafoe's death scene in "Platoon." Screaming, mouth agape, the Barcelona defender acrobatically spun to ground, clutching his right calf muscle, after he and Real Madrid's Pepe went for a loose ball with raised legs. Like the Zapruder film of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the slow-mo was scrutinized across the soccer world for clues: Did Pepe actually touch Alves?
Real Madrid's almost frame-by-frame post-mortem -- at http://tinyurl.com/6hqa7rd-- convincingly suggested not only that Pepe was innocent but that Alves wasn't the only Barcelona player who hammed it that night.
Referee Wolfgang Stark sent Pepe off. Messi then scored twice. And that, pretty much, sealed Barcelona's place in the final, which it won, too. This ticked all the boxes of standout soccer acting: It must be deceptive and effective and, if possible, be performed on the biggest stage.
-- Gervasio Nunez, Europa League group stage, Oct. 20. Pushed on the shoulder by Fulham's Mousa Dembele, the Argentine midfielder for Polish side Wisla Krakow pretended he had been thumped in the face and collapsed. Referee Martin Hansson bought it, Dembele trudged off, Wisla turned its one-man advantage into a 1-0 win. "Of course, we will never complain after a red card," said Fulham manager Martin Jol before going on to complain. "It was a push on the shoulder, after being kicked," he said. "You shouldn't raise your hand. He (Dembele) pushed him on the shoulder and you shouldn't do that. The referee gave us a red card, but we felt hard done by."
-- Erika, Women's World Cup quarterfinal, July 10. More worthy of a Razzie than an Oscar, because this gamesmanship backfired. Minutes away from qualifying for the semifinals, Brazil pulled all the old tricks to preserve its 2-1 lead over the United States, including wasting time. With a dramatic roll for added effect, Brazil's defender laid down in front of her own goal, clutching her back. Precious seconds passed as medics arrived with a gurney to cart her away. Then, behold! A miraculous recovery! She sprinted back on, to boos and whistles from the crowd. Referee Jacqui Melksham wasn't duped. She showed Erika a yellow card and added three additional minutes to the clock, just enough for Abby Wambach to head in the equalizing goal that sent the game to a penalty shootout, won by the United States.
If Erika hadn't stalled, would Wambach have had time to rescue U.S. hopes?
-- Peter Wisgerhof, Johan Cruyff Shield, July 30. Not deceptive, not effective, but Monty Pythonesque. In this match between the Dutch Cup winners and Dutch league champions, the captain of FC Twente looked like a mountain goat skipping over a rock or a frog on takeoff as he jumped into the air and rolled onto the ground after a tickle of a tackle from Ajax defender Daley Blind. To his credit, Wisgerhof later laughed at himself. "The worst dive of the match was definitely mine," Dutch websites quoted him as saying. "I felt something, but fell much later. Why didn't I get a yellow card? I quickly told the ref I'm a defender and don't even know how to fall."
But the Oscar goes to ...
-- Carrasco, South American Under-20 Championship, Feb. 12. This cheeky Chilean is our runaway winner. Such ingenuity! The midfielder plumbed new depths by grabbing an opponent's arm and whacking himself in the face with it, and then collapsing. You'll not tire of the video, with hilarity from commentators Nicolas Nardini and Jorge Nazar: http://tinyurl.com/4mz67te
"It could only have been better had he injured himself, knocking himself out, perhaps," said our jury member Steve Wade, AP Sports Writer in Argentina. "This is the classic `picaro' character of 16th century Spanish literature, the rascal seeking every advantage."
Like all the best actors, Carrasco had done his homework.
"It was necessary to do it because we were losing 1-0 and we needed to win to qualify," he told a TV interviewer.
"I do it in practice," he added. "The coach sees it and says: `Hey, what are you guys doing fighting over there?'"
Drama, comedy and a villain all in one. Even George and Brad would be impressed.