by Jared Bomba
For many, particularly those with Italian blood flowing through their veins, the 2006 World Cup is fondly remembered. The English and French, however, likely have a different feeling toward the tournament that Germany hosted now ten years ago. For a young American soccer fan, it was an introduction into the ever-controversial world of the international game, with the greatest lessons coming from the moments more painfully remembered. Zinedine Zidane’s moment of madness in the dying moments of the final, headbutting Italian defender Marco Materazzi, was not only memorable but also typical of a tournament that had repeatedly seen players goad opponents into angry outbursts and mental errors.
No match provided better examples of such gamesmanship than the Portugal vs. England quarterfinal match, won by Portugal in penalty kicks. In one incident, a young Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to wink after questionably going down and earning a free kick, igniting the rage of the English press in the days following the match. A more immediately noticeable flash point involved the sending off of Wayne Rooney after the English striker put his studs into the groin of Ricardo Carvalho as the Portuguese defender lay vulnerable on the ground.
Having always been lectured on the value of sportsmanship and keeping one’s temper in check, I immediately began to dislike Rooney, referring to him only as “nut-stomper” for years afterward. But as time passed and I too began to feel the emotions that come with playing soccer at increasingly competitive levels, I came to understand Rooney’s mistake.
In college I had a teammate spike the ball at an official’s feet after he was called for a foul in a close game. While it was a rash act for which he was fortunate not to get sent off, I realized that the same fire that allowed him to cover miles of ground and throw himself into tackles was the same reason that he erupted when he felt that the official had wronged him. No, I’m not saying that abusing the ref is a good outlet for excess emotion. But playing with passion and walking the line between being intense and being destructive is central to many players and how they play the game.
Hard fouls were the next “unpleasant” item I came to have a respect for. While overly-physical play is a more calculated tactic than the haphazard art of controlled rage, it nonetheless takes advantage of the poorly defined gray areas in the sport. Players like Nigel de Jong, Gary Medel, and many before have defined their careers by how well they can physically intimidate the opposition without forcing their own team to play with 10 men. Even in Sunday leagues, perhaps even more so, a player that has no problem admitting his desire to rough up the other side’s attackers is a valuable asset tactically and psychologically.
One of soccer’s most-discussed gray areas is the art of simulation, or diving. And I have a confession: I, maybe 10 years ago in a long-forgotten under-14 game, went down in the box to win a late penalty that propelled my team to a one-goal victory. That’s not to say that I dove under zero contact (at least I don’t remember it that way), but I definitely could have stayed on my feet. On that day, I learned two things; 1.) I am not cut out to live in the gray area diving represents. Some form of guilt plagued me, as I suppose it should have, and to this day I cannot remember diving again. 2.) It is an extraordinarily useful tool, one that players of all levels on all continents employ daily.
Diving, which FIFA has legislated to be an illegal tactic, is widely disdained, and with good reason. But it is a tactic, and an effective one. Cristiano Ronaldo, a player that many consider the greatest of his generation, is pretty widely acknowledged as a repeat offender of simulation. But given the number of times that such “cheating” has proved fruitful for him and his teams, why would he stop? Like the hotheads and destructive tacklers of the world, a diver walks the line between risking punishment and boosting their team. They live in the gray area, bending and sometimes breaking the rules, all to win the game. They disrespect the man-made rules because of their love for the game.
So if living in the undefined areas of the game is negative, or shameful, or dishonest, how do we accept that it still occurs? How do we forgive, forget, or choose not to see that many of the players we fans love are repeatedly guilty of these acts we call gamesmanship (or cheating, depending on your point of view)?
First, let’s be honest. While soccer is a game to be played with a moral conscience, the goal is to win. Not playing to win is a greater insult than bending the rules to succeed.
And the fact is that soccer is a game of gray areas, and as fans of the game, we truly love the inexact nature of it. The unpredictable guessing game played each match during stoppage time. The ever-varying interpretations of the handball and offside rules. Time-wasting. Extra yards taken during throw ins. The seemingly infinite forms of game manipulation that take advantage of the game’s natural vagaries. Our love for the organic uncertainties of the game allow us to love the players that live on the sliver of land between bending the rules and cheating.
Which brings me to the curious case of Diego Costa, who recently returned to the Chelsea lineup only to be shown a red card in his first game back, Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Everton in the FA Cup. I cannot think of a player more widely disdained or more commonly thought of as a cheater than the Spanish forward, and I confess that I too can barely stand his style of play. He’s physical, rough, confrontational, and known to simulate contact when it doesn’t occur. But what makes him different? Why is he so hated? Maybe it is that he plays for a club that many rival fans hated long before his arrival. Maybe it is the “why always me” look that he borrowed from Mario Balotelli. Or maybe it is just that he is good, as he has proved at both Atlético Madrid and now Chelsea.
While I expect that each of those factors play a part, I find the root of the problem to be in his actions, what he physically does on the pitch. Chelsea’s matchup with Arsenal earlier this season springs to mind as Costa, through some combination of violent play and a fragility greater than common glassware, fooled official Mike Dean into sending off Arsenal centerback Gabriel. Arsenal later appealed the red card, which was overturned by the FA.
All of this suggests that Costa put his physical power to use, inciting an atmosphere where it was plausible that Gabriel committed a red-card offense, then acted out that nonexistent offense so well that Dean thought it wise to expel the Brazilian. Impressive, really. And effective; the Blues won 2-0.
So why the outrage and hatred directed at this player? The physical play he used to irritate the Arsenal defenders was no more dangerous or overly-forceful than millions of physical contests seen before. His simulation was inherently no more or less deceitful than the dive recently executed by Liverpool’s Christian Benteke to win a late penalty as the Reds escaped with a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace.
The reason Costa so inflames fans is that he goes beyond pushing the limits, beyond mocking the rules of the game, all the way to insulting the very nature of the game itself. To bend the rules as so many do is one thing. To map out the indefinable regions of the game, repeatedly abuse them for your advantage, and ultimately flaunt your mockery of the game’s gray areas is not only an insult to the rules, but an insult to the game.
Following the 2-1 Liverpool victory, Benteke was asked whether or not he dove to win the penalty. The Belgian answered, “I think he touched me.” It was a perfectly uncertain answer for an uncertain part of the game. But whether he dove or not, he knew better than to flaunt his exploitation of the game.
Costa, in his repeated and calculated attempts to be the hardest man on the pitch while simultaneously playing the victim at every opportunity, goes beyond gamesmanship and into making a mockery of the organic flaws within the game. At the end of the day, even if it is distasteful, bending the rules of the game is understandable; they are irreversibly flawed as a result of their human origins. But to insult the sacred, natural facts at the heart of the game is a truly disgusting act.