Spanish side like to roll around as much as the English like to tackle hard, but neither will have the moral high ground at Wembley
In his earliest days at Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo would react to tackles on the training ground with a yelp and sometimes a quick roll on the ground. His new team-mates – Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs among them – took him aside and advised him to be less theatrical: not out of righteousness, but because they knew it was the wrong signal for him to send to opponents in the Premier League. Ronaldo soon learned that amateur dramatics were a bad idea, because they incensed opposing fans, incited the media and encouraged the other team to kick chunks out of him and then call him effete for overreacting. There was the odd easy tumble to win a penalty but by the end he was a macho, domineering presence in the contact areas. A measure of Ronaldo's eminence is that he has thrived not only in La Liga but here in England, where his courage and tenacity are among our memories of him as he matured into a warrior. Now cut to the image of him brushing Barcelona's Gerard Piqué in Tuesday night's Champions League semi-final second leg and then falling on to Javier Mascherano: a sequence that caused the referee to disallow a Real Madrid goal. This was Ronaldo operating on the edge of the culture he now plays in: a league where the attacking player is always inviting the match officials to punish defenders for challenges that might pass unnoticed here in rough-and-tumble England. The news from Iberia is that Spanish football folk think the English have a nerve to pontificate about cheating. Last week in the home of the world champions there was incredulity at the level of condemnation from Premier League spectators after Barcelona and Real had served up a European tie that was part fiesta, part drama workshop. To many in Europe, England is the home of the leg-breaking tackle, the two-footed karate leap and sanctimony over diving, which, they claim, occurs just as frequently in the Premier League but is exposed only when perpetrated by foreigners. That part is not fair. Diving is always flagged by the public and media in this country but it may be true that some England internationals are denounced less vehemently. Judgments in football are warped by allegiance, and tribalism, so some Barcelona fans are still not willing to countenance the accusation that their team has a theatrical streak. Instead they blame the antics of Dani Alves, Pedro and Sergio Busquets on the macho tackling of Real Madrid. Quite why two propositions cannot be true at once in the world's favourite game is my favourite mystery. Yes, Madrid tried to kick Barça out of the competition, and yes, some of Pep Guardiola's men responded by turning the tie into an audition for a war film. Spanish football is right to diagnose English distaste for the particular sin of exaggerating the weight of blow, rolling on the grass and clutching the face as if it has just been rearranged by a juggernaut. All across Premier League grounds fans chuntered about bad acting in the Barça-Real games. Which begs the question: is there a moral order of cheating, and does English football have any right to look down on it from Olympus? Not with Nigel de Jong on the loose, no. Or Lee Cattermole. Not when Eduardo, Aaron Ramsey and Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa have seen their legs mangled by "challenges" that express the hype and mania of the English game. Nor is "simulation" hardly absent from our fixtures. Sometimes Didier Drogba stays on the turf so long you wonder whether he is having a siesta. Old Dicky Attenborough, a Chelsea life-president, must admire the ease with which Drogba slips into character. Blackburn's Morten Gamst Pedersen is among those who tried the new trick of hooking his foot round a defender's leg in full flight to make a fall inevitable and so deceive the referee. All across the Premier League officials now need to be detectives and assess intent, but without the tools that allow the armchair viewers to spot skulduggery. But that should not stop us wondering how Barcelona will approach the Champions League final against Manchester United, a fellow "footballing" side who are unlikely to employ force as a weapon, unless the Scholes radar malfunctions again, or José Antonio Reyes turns up in a Barça shirt. Our sensitivity to the tomfoolery in Guardiola's team is pious, to some degree, and maybe hypocritical (Spain would say), but it remains right to abhor the theatricality of Busquets, for example, who violates the spirit of the game. In the semi-final Barcelona could use the excuse that they needed protection from Real's violence. Nonsense, of course. A player who grips his face when his arm has been tapped is not calling for help from the police. He is conning every one of us. So there is not much for Barcelona to add to their manifesto for us to swoon even more. But in England, Spain or anywhere, people are entitled to hope the small core of actors in the world's best side will now hand in their Equity cards.