Former England striker Michael Owen admitted on Wednesday he had fallen down to win penalties when he could have stayed on his feet but said he would never dive to win a penalty for any side.
The former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Newcastle United striker, now 32, is attempting to revive his career at Premier League Stoke City after an injury-blighted spell at Manchester United ended in the off-season.
During a discussion on diving, Owen gave an unusually honest answer to delegates as part of a three-man panel at the Leaders In Football business convention at the Stamford Bridge home of European champions Chelsea.
Sitting alongside Pierluigi Collina, the former World Cup referee who is now UEFA’s chief refereeing officer, Owen said: “It is in our game, it is happening so fast these days that it is virtually impossible to see whether there was contact.
“I’d say that 75 per cent of players could stay on their feet for a penalty, and if they get touched and go down it is almost, ‘hey got touched so it’s okay to go down’.
“I have been guilty as well, I played at the 1998 World Cup against Argentina and I was running flat out, got a nudge, went down. Could I have stayed up? Yes, probably.”
Looking at Collina, he added: “Then four years later you gave me a penalty again against Argentina. Again, I could have stayed on my feet, the defender’s caught me and I did have a decent gash down my shin from it but I could have stayed up.”
Alan Shearer converted the penalty that Owen won in 1998 when Argentina beat England on penalties in St Etienne, France. Four years later England beat Argentina 1-0 in Sapporo, Japan when David Beckham scored from the spot.
“It’s a very difficult subject to talk about especially to people who have not played the game. There is a major skill in trying to outwit an opponent,” Owen explained.
“For the actual player, one-against-one, you’re trying to draw people, to commit them, to get into the box because you know as soon as you have got them in the box they are petrified of sticking a leg out or doing anything. It is a skill to get them one-on-one or isolated.
“No one is for blatantly diving, of course they are not, but there is a part of a striker that actually tries to entice the leg to come out to try to win a penalty. It is a skill and it has been done for years and years and I don’t think it will ever leave the game.
“I’m totally against diving, I have never been for it or sought to get a penalty without being touched, but you try to push the boundaries to win a game for your team without cheating.”
Owen, England’s fourth highest scorer with 40 goals from his 89 internationals, made a blistering start to his career scoring at the age of just 18 for England and making a huge impact at the 1998 World Cup in France with a stunning goal against Argentina.
But the second half his career has been played out in the shadow of injuries, although he said he was still optimistic about the future and would love to return to the England side if he could ever recapture the scoring exploits of his youth.
Laughing, he said: “Not only do some people think I retired from England, some people think I’ve retired from football full stop. No, I’d never retire from international football.
“I have to perform well for my club and if I do that there might be an outside chance of getting back. I don’t go to bed thinking of playing for England again. It would be a bonus, but I need to get back on pitch and rediscover my goal scoring touch.
“It’s a very intense feeling playing for your country. I don’t think people express themselves as well as they do at club level. At that level you feel loved, the fans are on side, you’re playing week in week out. There’s certainly a bit of fear playing for England. But football still is, and always will be, my number one passion. I’m still as hungry as I was when I was 18.”
Owen said he believed that the foreign influence in the English game had been both good and bad.
Diets and fitness had improved and the old drinking culture had disappeared but diving had increased.
“Certainly it was not as prevalent 10 years ago. It’s worse than it was 10 years ago,” Owen said. “You would have to say that’s because of the foreign influence of players from South America, Spain and Italy.
“When I was kid I used to watch Italian football and used to see a lot of simulation. It did not really happen in England.
“It’s now a worldwide problem. Now English players are as guilty, but foreign players certainly started the ball rolling in England.”