Football in general, and English football in particular, loves a pantomime villain. In recent years that position has been occupied by the likes of Joey Barton and Luis Suarez, characters who unite people in their condemnation as if they were the archetypes of what people despise about the modern game, juxtaposed against those who make it beautiful.
The saturation of the sport provided by social media and tabloid newspapers demands that these personalities exist, and if they do not then they must be created in order to provide a story arc that will supply copy to the endless written columns, online and in print. The problem with this is that sometimes the person in question is unfairly branded, and there already seems to be the feeling that this is happening to Diego Costa.
The Spain international has played just three competitive games since joining Chelsea yet has already received some criticism for his actions as well as a disproportionate amount of attention from the officials. He has been the recipient of two yellow cards, but neither was warranted, and thus he is two steps closer to an automatic one-match suspension despite having done little to earn it.
Against Burnley, referee Michael Oliver saw fit to book Costa for simulation even though he was clearly tripped by goalkeeper Tom Heaton in the penalty area, a decision seemingly founded upon reputation rather than fact. Costa kept his nose clean in the eyes of the referee in the win over Leicester City but was back in the bad books at Everton when he was cautioned for a supposed fracas with Seamus Coleman. Having been buffeted, bumped and provoked, Costa turned to face his tormentor and was cautioned for it. Coleman, who continued to jibe at Costa, escaped censure despite being the instigator.
Had referee Jonathan Moss put both of their names in the book, it might have been accepted as an attempt to put an end to the simmering feud. Booking one and not the other, though, just played to the crowd. The situation was even more galling because Tim Howard received the same punishment as Costa for grabbing the striker by the scruff of the neck before leaning his head into Cesar Azpilicueta right in front of the hapless Moss. Two separate acts of aggression were treated in the same manner as a single act of frustration under duress.
But even that quite remarkable display of double standards is not the most galling part of Costa's treatment. That arrived with the condemnation that came his way from many, though not all, areas of the football media for the schadenfreude he rubbed in Coleman's face after the Irishman put through his own net. Now, nobody would advocate that laughing at another's misfortune on the football pitch is a particularly honourable thing to do, but it was not as if it was an isolated incident enacted purely out of malice.
In this case, context is everything. Coleman had decided to make it his mission to wind up Costa and induce him into doing something reckless that might result in a red card, and in the world of professional sport that is a perfectly understandable approach. It does, however, mean that it is impossible to occupy the moral high ground when karma deals its revenge in the form of an own goal. Costa's reaction might not have been especially edifying, but in the physically demanding world of English football, it hardly represents a reprehensible act. To paraphrase an old nursery rhyme: Sticks and stones might break your bones, but a laugh in the face will never hurt you.
The criticism Costa has received from some quarters has been tiresome, especially when you take into account some of those who are expounding it. Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, for instance, was happy to put the boot in while seemingly oblivious of his role in confronting Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman missed a penalty in a fractious encounter between the two sides in 2003. Given that Keown received a three-match ban and a hefty fine for his actions, you would have thought he might have remembered it.
The issue surrounding the Chelsea striker's sportsmanship is even more frustrating when you consider that a worse act was perpetrated during the match and has barely been picked up by any media outlet, namely when Everton's Kevin Mirallas deliberately stood on Cesc Fabregas' arm as the Spaniard lay prone on the ground. Costa's berating of Coleman might have been ill-advised, but Mirallas should have seen red or been dealt with retrospectively.
It is a credit to Costa that he managed to keep his cool for the rest of the game and net a second goal himself, though this is just the tip of the iceberg. He seems to have already forged an unfair image for himself that is likely to dog him for the rest of the season, if not his entire career in England. Whether he likes it or not, the 25-year-old is now going to be a target for the opposition in every game he plays. He will need to be big enough to shrug off the provocateurs and ignore those begging the referee to book him, and he should rest assured that hitting the back of the net with regularity and leading Chelsea to glory would be the best response possible.