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On Saturday, Chelsea’s Diego Costa, centre right, engaged in a bizarre bit of roughhousing with Everton’s Gareth Barry during an FA Cup match. (Phil Noble/REUTERS)
On Saturday, Chelsea’s Diego Costa, centre right, engaged in a bizarre bit of roughhousing with Everton’s Gareth Barry during an FA Cup match. (Phil Noble/REUTERS)

Kelly: Diving, whining Diego Costa may be most interesting man in sport Add to ...

Among the many things that are fun about sports is the possibility of engaging your inner caveman in a relatively safe, consequence-free environment.

On the street, if you decide to go forehead-to-forehead with an annoying stranger, one of two things will happen: Police will swing by and provide you with chauffeur service to your new overnight accommodations; or one of that stranger’s friends nails you in the head with a garbage can, breaking the can and, quite possibly, your head.

Neither one seems like much fun, especially as you grow older and your skull loses bone density. Even the forehead-to-forehead thing hurts more than you’d think.

On the field, at worst, a reasonable middle-aged gentleman with no powers of arrest shows up to give you a little talking to. You get all ‘Oh yeah? Oh yeah?!’ while your teammates mill about like unsettled dogs.

Once in a while you will have to punch someone or be punched, which is unpleasant. But in that safe sports place, you know that once you get knocked down, it’s over. No one’s going to climb on top of you and continue pummelling.

Anyone who’s ever been in one of those fakey sports fights knows how thrilling it can be. Even losing feels pretty good. It’s all the adrenaline of real battle minus most of the fear.

This is what I think of every time I watch Diego Costa play football. This is a man who enjoys taking things right up to their (rather paltry) limit. Watching him test those boundaries in front of tens of millions of people is what makes him the most interesting footballer in the world.

Costa, a striker for Chelsea, is an intermittently great player. He’s a big man with the hamstrings of a calcium-deficient kindergartner, and spends a lot of time injured. When he’s fully fit and able to play, he’s predictable only in his bad mood.

In the sport most forgiving of cheats and thespians, Costa is a special, terrible case. He is the diviest, whiniest player of modern times. In terms of on-field integrity and commitment to fair play, he makes a weasel like Luis Suarez look like Joan of Arc.

Were you to spot Costa mowing his lawn and give him a hearty wave, the wind created by your friendly gesture would knock him to the ground. If you came over to give him a hand up, he’d start up with ‘Why? Whyyy?!’. Then, as you walked away confused, he’d run up from behind and kick you hard in the back of the knee. That’s the sort of player he is. It’s wonderful.

Costa does not actually fight anyone. He seems to lack the gene. But as he gets older and more ornery, he’s getting closer.

On Saturday, Costa engaged in a bizarre bit of roughhousing with Everton’s Gareth Barry during an FA Cup match. Barry is one of those stalwart English footballing types, all work-a-day and honest effort. Which is to say, he’s boring as hell.

Barry tripped Costa. He didn’t hurt him or impede him in any notable way. It was the kind of trip that happens 20 times in any soccer match.

Costa rose in a fury. First, he chest bumped Barry. Barry chest bumped him back. Then he shoved his face into Barry’s face. Barry shoved back.

Then Costa began to nuzzle furiously at Barry’s neck, which is not the next sentence you expect to read in situations like this. But that’s what he did – nuzzle. Like a hungry, angry baby.

The replay was a little ambiguous, but it appeared that Costa gave momentary consideration to biting Barry. He certainly did open his mouth threateningly and then really tuck in there.

Of course, everyone was hoping he would bite him. Nothing gets the soccer crowd panting about erotic savagery than a good chomping.

The aforementioned Suarez could build a space balloon in his garage and fly it to Mars and the first line of his obituary would be, “This nut bit a guy at the World Cup! (Also was a visionary astronaut.)”

Once you’ve got a confirmed dental attack, you can sit back and let the Sports section write itself for two weeks. Biting is to sports media what cold fusion is to energy.

Sadly, Costa did not bite Barry. Barry confirmed that later. Nevertheless, Costa’s unhinged behaviour brought his reputation to new extremes among supporters and detractors. No player who hasn’t appeared in a witness box is more divisive.

The most striking thing about the incident was that it gave Joey Barton – one of the most alluring numbskulls to play any game ever – a chance to philosophize on the subject of sporting violence in general.

“What we have to remember is nobody has died,” Barton started off unpromisingly. Nobody wants to hear the truth about what matters when they’re busy hyperventilating about something that doesn’t. It’s the worst sort of spoilsporting.

“It’s a game of football. You have two grown men basically square up, no punches have been thrown, nothing serious has happened, both have gone home to their families, one team has lost, one team has won … We have to be careful not to get too carried away. We have to remember what makes football football. It’s that kind of thing.”

Switch out “football” for any other sport, and that’s a very good encapsulation of why we watch any game being played. It is, at its root, not about skill or winning. It’s about conflict. The game is a form of conflict resolution with a variety of potential strategies. Generally speaking, you win on the scoreboard. Occasionally, you can be said to win by radically upping the stakes, and increasing rather than resolving the conflict inherent to those two or three hours.

Costa was ejected from Saturday’s game. Chelsea lost 2-0. Their season is effectively over. From a box-score perspective, it’s as complete a humiliation as possible.

From the other perspective – pure war – it has made Costa’s legend more fascinating. He is not a winner, as such. He’s a fighter. A dirty one, but a fighter nonetheless. Unlike many others, you never doubt that he cares.

That sort of thing has lost mainstream currency of late. But I still cannot think of a more compelling personality type to watch.

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