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How Effective are Those Fake World Cup Injuries?

People use mobile devices to take pictures of an advertising placard showing Uruguay's striker Luis Suarez flashing his teeth, Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, June 26, 2014.
People use mobile devices to take pictures of an advertising placard showing Uruguay's striker Luis Suarez flashing his teeth, Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, June 26, 2014.
Adam Phillips

Anyone watching soccer's World Cup is familiar with the head-knocking, pushing, elbowing and even biting that occurs on the field — and how players on the receiving end of those maneuvers sometimes react in dramatic, seemingly exaggerated ways.

But do those histrionics, real or faked, actually help teams to win?

While faking injury may help a player draw a penalty on the opposing team, Dr. Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports physician at North Carolina's Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, decided to evaluate whether embellished distress is an effective competitive strategy.

“We basically sat down, watched a lot of soccer, and looked for events where it looked like someone was injured when they went down to the ground holding a body part," he said. "We didn’t have any access to the medical records or anything, but we’d try to decide if it was a definite injury or not, if the player had to be ‘subbed off’ within a few minutes, or if there was something really obvious like visible bleeding.

"Only about 7 percent turned out to be true injuries, and we didn’t find that the teams were any more successful that exhibited this type of behavior.”

Still, feigning injury can be a useful dilatory tactic in a tough game, according to sports psychologist Harris Stratyner of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.     

“It’s not to say you can’t get hurt in soccer. But I think it’s more of a strategy among European players that they may even be coached to milk the time and ... buy their teammates time for a breather," he said. "It’s like a boxer who may hug his opponent to buy some breathing time or goes down on a punch and waits until just before the count of 10 to get up so they can have some breathing time.”

Players also use dramatic gestures to get a point across, he said.  

“Psychologically speaking, if you are more demonstrative, you are going to get the referees’ attention, and there is going to be a greater chance to have the opposing team receive a penalty.

In Stratyner’s opinion, U.S. players tend to underplay injuries as compared to European or Central and South Americans.

U.S. sports culture tends to value stoicism in the face of challenges, he said, which can prove a liability. Playing while injured can make an injury worse, for example, and making one’s injury “no big deal” can mean fewer penalties for the opposing team.

Yet Stratyner acknowledges that there are cultures within the U.S. where drama is encouraged.   

“I’ll pick on my culture," he said. "I’m Jewish and my mother also had some Italian in her, and I will tell you that there were lots of dramatics. That’s not a bad thing. That’s not a criticism. It’s just how you’re raised. If these teams are using that to their advantage, that’s how they’re being trained.” 

Questions of training, strategy and display may be debated by fans during those non-game hours, but even experts have put the finer points aside at this stage of the World Cup.

Rosenbaum, an avid fan, says he welcomes the drama because he loves the game, and that it's "all a part of the story.”

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