That raucous behavior, the deceitful cheat masterminding a red card for an opponent he could otherwise not overcome, the unruly character not befitting the spirit of sportsmanship and many other adjectives; surely Diego Costa earned himself quite a few haters following Chelsea’s controversial home win against bitter rivals Arsenal.
But there is another version to all of it, too. A wily and smart competitor sensing the emotional vulnerability of his adversary in a high-stake derby game and deciding to cash in on it. He engages him in a stinging war of words, anticipating his patience to run out any moment and subsequently do something stupid in the heat of the moment enough to have him sent off. And Gabriel Paulista didn’t disappoint.
Certainly, the football world will be polarized in terms of their assessment of the event which took place between Diego Costa and Gabriel at Stamford Bridge last Saturday. A brawl which initially started between the Blues striker and Laurent Koscielny saw the young Arsenal defender jumping in with the resulting commotion earning both the players yellow card initially. Gabriel ultimately got the marching orders from Mike Dean following his mindless back kick at Costa.
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The sending off had a significant bearing on the contest as the match, then tied at 0-0, swung conspicuously in favor of Chelsea who went on to secure a 2-0 win.
The follow-up of the encounter has seen Mike Dean, the match referee, being subjected to severe criticism from certain quarters for not showing a red card to Costa too who, according to them, merited a sending-off as much as Gabriel did.
Did Costa deserve a red?
So, did Costa deserved to be shown a red card for his brawl with Gabriel or was Mike Dean correct to spare the Brazilian-born Spanish attacker?
The right answer to that could only be achieved if the emotional element of all of this is detached from the overall analysis of what transpired on the field.
The spat which occurred could be divided into two parts: first featuring Costa’s coming together with Koscielny and the second – though induced by the first incident – the striker’s fight with Gabriel.
In the first incident, Costa was the guilty party, clearly throwing his hand at Kochielny’s face not once, but twice. However for aerial battles, was that a scene completely out of the blue? I believe not. It’s probably one of those cases where players often get away with and a referee’s red card would later be deemed as a heavy-handed measure. The referee probably didn’t get a clear look at it and the FA might have a final say on that.
Then, Costa thumped Koscielny with his chest who was thrown off balance and fell to the floor. That too is a familiar sight, especially in closely-contested derbies.
And then a scuffle ensued between Costa and Gabriel. The referee intervened and cautioned both the players with a yellow card. Mike Dean has a reputation of avoiding reaching out to his pocket but quite clearly both of them had crossed the threshold of acceptable behavior by then. Dean was again spot on.
That should have been the end of it all. Only that it wasn’t. Both Costa and Gabriel scurried towards the halfway line still exchanging words, with the referee keeping in close tow.
Of what it appears, Costa goaded Gabriel with an aim of drawing a second yellow card for him. And judging by what followed – Gabriel aiming a back kick at him with his stud ups – the Spanish International succeeded and quickly pointed it to Mike Dean. The experienced match official was standing too close to miss the defender’s stunt. And the next thing you know, Gabriel was heading towards the dressing room tunnel.
Mike Dean made the right calls
Boos and jeers from the Arsenal fans resonated the stadium, but once again, Mike Dean had got it absolutely correct. Costa was surely teetering at the limits of lawfully acceptable conduct, and so was Gabriel, but the referee took no punitive action against either of them following their first booking.
It was only Gabriel’s attempted back kick which forced Dean to leap into action once again. He adopted a lenient and consistent stance throughout but Gabriel had now gone a step too far.
Costa was spared because he played his part cunningly. He knew perfectly the limits of the laws and utilised them fully to secure a vital advantage for his side. The only party at fault here, in terms of the laws, is Gabriel for there is undoubtedly no debate that his action warranted a red card.
The incident flashed back memories from the 2006 World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo delved into his vast stock of trickeries and stunts to earn a red card for Wayne Rooney in a crunch quarter-final clash and then winked at his dugout.
And who can forget what happened at the final of the same event, when Zinedine Zidane was sent off following his head-butt on Marco Materazzi. The lead up to that sending off was not so different to Saturday’s event at Stamford Bridge.
Costa will probably get booed for a while now on Chelsea’s encounters on the road, just like Ronaldo was back in 2006. But he certainly did bask in the moment when the whole Stamford Bridge crowd got to his feet and chanted his name when he was substituted. He probably won’t mind the reception he will be getting elsewhere. After all, his loyalties lie with Chelsea Football Club.
Football is not a gentleman's game
The morality of Costa’s actions are not a subject of debate here. Players feign injuries, tug at each other’s shirts, halt sprints by committing fouls to avoid counter attacks, kick the ball away to ensure a quick free-kick is not taken, swear at each other, waste time, dive inside the 18-yard box in a bid to win penalties etc.
All of this seems to have become a norm and these not-so-sportsman-like stunts don’t even register with anyone as morally wrong. Going by the book is all that matters.
Costa certainly did not go by the moral code or the spirit of sportsmanship – maybe he does not even know if such a thing exists - but his actions were within the bounds of the book. Football is no gentleman’s game after all.