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No one is better at cheating than Diego Costa

On Saturday, Diego Costa gave Chelsea a victory with as fine an exhibition of underhanded skulduggery as you could ever hope to see. But how does he do it? And why is it so entertaining?

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In a funny sort of way, Diego Costa has done Arsene Wenger a favor. For the first 10 or so minutes of Arsenal's visit to Stamford Bridge, the north Londoners were sharp and bright and Chelsea were looking just a little shaky. But by the end of the half, the game was settling into a familiar pattern: Arsenal were receding into their shells, and Chelsea were taking control.

Then, Diego Costa roundarm slapped Laurent Koscielny in the face and chestbumped him to the ground. Though Koscielny scampered quicker than a nervous piglet at an Oxford bop, Gabriel, a more pugnacious character, came over for a quick word. Yellow cards were distributed. More words were exchanged. A neck may have been scratched. Then, as the two walked backwards towards the halfway line, Costa continued to chirrup. And chirrup. And chirrup. And chirrup, until Gabriel flicked his foot backwards and Mike Dean seized the moment to be Mike Dean. Off he went, the game was gone, and now all anybody wants to talk about is the nefarious, nasty, no-good Costa. A minor bullet dodged, perhaps.

Or perhaps Arsenal would have gone on and given Wenger his first league victory over Jose Mourinho; that's the thing with red cards, they change close games in dramatic fashion. We wait, now, to see whether Costa will incur any retrospective action from the FA (maybe), and to see whether a petition to prevent Mike Dean from refereeing any further Arsenal games will be successful (maybe not). But while we wait, we should probably consider two questions: One, how does Costa get away with it so consistently? He ends up somewhere on the sinful spectrum every week. And two, why is it quite so amusing?

He doesn't always get away with it, of course. Below is a video showing the (figurative) biter (figuratively) bite (he hasn't gone full Suarez yet). You might recognize the figure in yellow taking a tumble and earning Costa his booking. That's Gabriel. Maybe this was just some exceptionally well-chilled revenge.

But Costa gets away with it more than seems proportional or reasonable, and by Opta's official account he didn't commit a foul all game. Whether he's extremely angry and extremely lucky, the consistency with which he manages to go just far enough, but no further, and the way he seems to be forever aware of where the officials are looking, suggest that he knows what he's doing.

Perhaps we need to start thinking of Costa's gamesmanship as another footballing skill, up there with ball control and corner-taking. Just as a defensive midfielder might spend the game intimidating, by both fair means and foul, the opposing playmaker, so the designated windup merchant spends his games working the referee. Finding the line, and then pushing it slowly but surely outward until, like a toddler wearing down a tired parent, he can basically get away with anything short of actual, literal murder. Meanwhile, the opposition only have to snap at the wrong moment.

In a funny sort of way, his reputation — which goes before him like a man with a red flag announcing a combustion machine — helps him here. Referees, particularly in big games, can often attempt to play things softly for the opening stages. Costa, simply by being himself, wears away that patience; every time he bumps into an opponent there's a murmur from the crowd and a gesture from the bench, and the official has to have a word. That was what happened on Saturday: he eroded away Dean's reserves of big-game patience and then, just as the referee had finally had enough, Gabriel came back for just one more niggle. Costa's predictable baiting often ends up working to the unforeseen detriment of the opponent.

So, why is it quite so enjoyable for the neutral? While Costa's alleged racial abuse of Geoffrey Kondogbia does mean that his villainy isn't mere agitation — and provides a perfect counterpoint to the "Ah, you'd love him if he played for your lot" argument — there is, nevertheless, something compellingly amusing about watching him at work. In part this is because the sight of grown men squabbling during a football match is at heart ridiculous, both in the moment and in the outrage and pearl-clutching that follows.

There's more to it, though. Plenty of footballers can, in the right circumstances, be provocative dicks (including Gabriel, who in the long run is going to do plenty of good in de-milquetoasting Arsenal's defense). But none are as exceptional as Costa. This isn't just because he's more of a dick than them; this is because nobody else truly inhabits the role in the way Costa does. He becomes more than just a footballer: he becomes an earthbound avatar for the very idea of dickishness. The Form of the Bellend.

In doing so, he pushes something already quite funny firmly into the realms of parody: the boos rain down and Costa is always, always behind you. His perfect dickishness is almost certainly not real. Nobody can be that angry, that precisely and functionally and persistently angry. As such all you can really do is laugh. There's no point taking him seriously as a threat to the moral sensibilities of the nation's children. He doesn't even really exist.

Where Costa goes from here is obvious: he just carries on. Whatever the FA decide to do with him won't matter (they've charged him), since last season's three-game ban for stamping on Emre Can did nothing to break him out of character. Costa will keep snarking and sniding and snarling until his hamstrings finally give up. Meanwhile, opponents will keep reacting, referees will keep embarrassing themselves, and everybody else will keep on tutting or laughing. Then he'll retire and spend the rest of his life in blissful peace. Or maybe he'll simply vanish back into the firmament, his work done. Gone in a cloud of black smoke, with a twirl of the mustache and a flourish of cape. Which will be good news for the defenders of the nation, and slightly disappointing for the rest of us.


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