This new research summarized in Science on the game theory of soccer dives is fascinating stuff. Here are the key findings:
[The researchers] decided to examine whether diving conformed to game-theory predictions. David surveyed falls from 60 games, 10 each from the Spanish, German, Australian, Dutch, Italian, and French leagues, replaying them on TV to decide which were dives. She classified them as legitimate, slightly deceptive (the player was touched by the opponent but exaggerated the consequences), or highly deceptive. She also tracked where the fall occurred on the field, at what point in the game it happened, the score at the time, and whether it was an at-home player who fell.
As game theory predicts, legitimate falls far outnumber fake falls, Wilson reported at the meeting. Only 6% of the 2800 falls were highly deceptive dives. Players were two to three times as likely to dive when close to the goal, where the payoff was huge: Statistics show that there is an 80% chance of scoring from penalty kicks. Almost none of the highly deceptive dives resulted in free kicks against the diver. And referees were most likely to reward dives that occurred close to the goals—perhaps because the players were farther away and the deception harder to detect, he noted.
Source: Pennisi E. Soccer and the art of deception. Science (New York, N.Y.). 2011;331(6015):280. Available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6015/280.1.short.