The more you think about it the more inevitable it seems that José Mourinho—the ne plus ultra of managerial shit-talking, barb-throwing, and incessant needling of rivals—and Diego Costa—his dispositional equivalent on the field, only with elbows substituted for verbal barbs as his projectile of choice—would combine their sinister forces on a hellish crusade to infuriate every opposing manager, player, and fan while cackling to themselves back in their evil lair.
This weekend’s events were something of an apogee of the two men’s shared determination to piss off their opponents. The occasion was Chelsea vs. Arsenal, always one of the biggest games in the league and especially so in the context of this season. Arsenal were out to prove their title aspirations weren’t just dreams, that this is finally the prophesied “next year” in the age-old Gunners adage, “Yeah, they kind of blew this season, but just you wait till they put it all together next year.” Chelsea needed to prove that its early-season debacle—one of the true joys of this season thus far—was but a temporary blip. Even though Manchester City look like locks to win the league, there was a reason most believed that despite their poor start, Chelsea still had the most realistic shot to run them down.
The leadup to the match was quieter than you’d normally expect. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and Mourinho are something like a hero/villain comic book duo—fated to duke it out in Premier League fixtures until the end of time, each one dependent on the other’s survival to bring meaning to their own struggle—only if the bad guy won way, way more often than the good guy and everyone liked him more for it.
Mourinho loves nothing more than pointing out his vastly superior record to Wenger, which is why Chelsea-Arsenal prematch pressers are usually so heated; normally the two back-and-forth in the media, Mourinho saying something like “LOL this guy still hasn’t won anything of substance?” and Wenger responding with some passive-aggressive version of, “Look, I’m not going to give any juicy quotes like everyone wants, but God Almighty do I hate that fucker.”
However, in their most recent bout in the Community Shield, Wenger finally came out on top for the first time in 14 tries. The two managers made a point to ignore each other after that match. There wasn’t much for Mourinho to say after the game other than that he had been beaten. You know it had to kill him to admit it. Still, the Community Shield was little more than a glorified friendly. The truly high-stakes contest pitting the two title contenders only came this past weekend.
Wenger didn’t feel like pressing his advantage in the lead-up to the game, brushing off all questions pertaining to his relationship with Mou. Similarly, Mourinho couldn’t burn Wenger too much, considering their last encounter and the greater calamity of Chelsea’s season. At last, the play on the pitch would define this London rivalry.
Or so we all thought. As it turned out, It wasn’t Mourinho whose mind games would unalterably change the match’s outcome.
The incidents you see above involve Costa using every tactic available to provoke Arsenal’s center backs into doing something dumb. Predictably, the elite shit-stirrer’s attempts were successful.
Watch the master at work. The way Costa starts everything with an at-first-unreturned blow to Laurent Koscielny’s face, waits for the true mark, Koscielny’s partner in central defense Gabriel Paulista, to reveal himself by lashing out, then proceeds to hound him by constantly chattering in his ear, keeping his body right on top of the defender, and using those clever little fake-conciliatory-because-they’re-way-too-hard-to-be-friendly backslaps—it’s all so brilliant.
The original kerfuffle earns Costa and Gabriel both yellows, but the extras are what lead Gabriel to attempt that ill-advised though perfectly harmless backwards swipe with his cleats. The sideline ref spots it and Gabriel is sent off. What was a tight 0-0 game before eventually became a comfortable 2-0 Chelsea win against an Arsenal team that ended the day with only nine men on the field. What Mourinho didn’t do—use his words and actions to throw his opponents off their game—Costa executed flawlessly.
Emboldened by the big win, Mourinho got his swagger back. He had yet again proved that his favorite punching bag wasn’t as good as him, and thus could pile on some more:
On the red card, and what Wenger called Costa’s “unacceptable” behavior, Mourinho had this to say:
That’s why sometimes I’m very proud of my people and my clubs. I’ve played against Arsenal, I don’t know, 12, 15, 18 times, I don’t know. And only once did [Wenger] not moan.
In that day we lost a game, we lost a cup, it was not good for us. We behaved in a fantastic way, no excuses, not crying, not moaning, just Mr. José Mourinho, my players, and Chelsea Football Club.
He went on to sneer at Wenger’s suggestions that Costa deserved a red card for his part in the incidents, saying the way Costa plays is part of the entertainment that makes the league the most popular in the world. Mourinho reiterated that you can’t win rivalry matches without the “emotional control” Gabriel obviously lacked, and closed the press conference like this: “I have to cope with my defeats. Tonight he has to cope with his defeat.”
Mourinho is fundamentally correct here. Sure, Costa is inarguably a bastard who regularly toes, stomps, and hops back and forth over the line of allowable physicality. He’s a habitual line stepper. His infractions should be spotted better by refs and he should be punished for them when spotted, but it’s incumbent on each individual player not to fall into his trap, lest he find himself like Gabriel. And while the kind of face-groping and slapping that he inflicted on Koscielny certainly shouldn’t happen, the basic tactic of provoking opponents is and always will be a part of a sport that can swing so dramatically on a referee’s whistle. It is, as Mourinho pointed out, a part of the entertainment.
Which makes the more histrionic responses to Costa’s acts so eye-roll inducing. Costa’s not the worst thing to happen to the British game, just like Luis Suárez wasn’t when he was on the other end of the spectrum, quick to be driven into fits of madness by the behavior of defenders. Mourinho himself is such a revered figure in England precisely because he so unabashedly uses public slights and digs to burrow into other managers’ minds with hopes of putting them off their games. It can’t be okay when Mourinho does it, or when pundits rightly point out that provocation will be a career-long tactic for defenders facing players like Suárez and Mario Balotelli who’ve shown themselves susceptible to it, and at the same time be tantamount to treason when Costa attempts some of the same shenanigans himself.
The English FA has now brought charges of violent conduct against Costa for what he did to Koscielny, which is probably the right move. That kind of instigation really does go too far. But a potential suspension won’t stop Costa from continuing to be the biggest thorn in 19 other Premier League teams’ collective asses, just like nothing will stop Mourinho from shading managers he thinks will be bothered by it.
These two diabolical supervillains concocting all manner of plots to throw the rest of world soccer off their game is exactly what they deserve, and is fun as hell to watch. Stop complaining that the bad guys are bad and learn to accept the beautiful, dark colors they bring to the sport.
Photo via Getty