SPAL president Walter Mattioli decided to show his ass in public and branded Federico Chiesa “an untrustworthy person” who “invents fouls out of nowhere” as he lamented his team’s 1-4 defeat to Fiorentina. Despite later calling Viola president Mario Cognini shortly after to apologize, Fede and his group remain justifiably unimpressed as the nonpology went to a club official in private, rather than being addressed to Chiesa in public.
First, let’s recap what Mattioli’s howling about. In the 73rd minute of Sunday’s match, Chiesa drove past Thiago Cionek and reached the byline to play a cutback through the box, upon which SPAL defender Felipe dal Belo launched his spikes directly into Chiesa’s ankle. Referee Luca Pairetto waved play on, but noted the incident for VAR to check at the next stoppage. However, SPAL recovered the ball, drove down the pitch, and scored what seemed to be the go-ahead goal. Pairetto, though, correctly went to the replay system, which awarded the penalty, thus nullifying the SPAL goal. Jordan Veretout slotted it home, and just like that, SPAL had gone from winning 2-1 to losing 1-2.
While it’s easy to understand the frustration in the moment that the Biancazzuri must have felt, the officiating crew’s actions followed the rules precisely. The delay in passing judgement, and the fact that SPAL scored in the interim, highlight the need for a smoother integration of VAR into the game, but there’s really no other way that the refs could have handled this and made the right decision. I know it’s fun and easy to bag on the man with the whistle, but this isn’t the right time for it.
However, Mattioli’s comments, while clearly born of frustration more than anything, also demonstrate that there’s a narrative of diving being built around Federico Chiesa, and it’s time to go ahead and say that any such narrative is wrong. Fede goes to ground pretty regularly, yes, but that’s because of the type of player he is. When your game is built around dribbling past your marker in a tight space, you’re going to get fouled a lot; such has been the case since everyone wore mustaches and long pants to play the game.
Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. Fede’s 2.5 successful dribbles per 90 minutes are the second-most among wingers in Serie A. The 2 fouls he suffers per 90 minutes rank joint-7th. That makes sense; again, a player who makes his living on beating opponents off the dribble is going to be in closer proximity to a defender, thus forcing a lot more contact and quick decisions on the defender’s part. For a player who dribbles so much, it’s perhaps surprising that Fede isn’t higher on the “fouls suffered” list, although that’s probably just statistical noise.
As for diving in the area, Fede’s not that bad there either. He’s won one other penalty this year, against Atalanta, and yes, that one was a dive. But that’s it. No other Fede PKs won. One dive per season doesn’t exactly paint the portrait of a cynical player. In fact, he’s won 6 penalties in his 3 seasons as a professional. For a guy who’s seen as the future of the Italian national team due to his close control in high-pressure situations, that doesn’t seem like a very high number.
Statistics, of course, can be tortured to produce any desired outcome, so let’s just eyeball it. In the SPAL game alone, there were two incidents which could have been penalties. Right before Luis Muriel crushed the bar, Chiesa went over in the area under pressure from three defenders. While the SPAL support whistled him, a look at the replays clearly showed that there was no shortage of contact; Fede went down, yeah, but he couldn’t very well have stayed on his feet as he got tripped. It probably wasn’t a penalty, but it illustrates just how much punishment he absorbs every 90 minutes.
The penalty itself was a no-brainer. Felipe went late, studs up, and caught Chiesa’s ankle. To the Brazilian’s great credit, he apologized after the match and admitted that, yes, it was definitely a bad foul in the area that deserved to be penalized. That the spot kick was given goes to show that the system in that sense, at least, works: players get fouled in the area and the penalty is awarded. The best attackers win more fouls and are thus rewarded for their talent. Defenders develop an emphasis on not fouling as much, leading to matches that are more open and fluid. Yes, there are hiccups in the early implementation, but these are outcomes that are desirable for most fans.
However, this begins to get at the heart of the issue. Football being the smoldering, reactionary cauldron that it is, there will always be plenty of people who long for the good old days, when men were men and there was nothing wrong with giving your mark a little toe leather to let him know you’re there and there certainly wasn’t any of this showboating or diving because everyone respected the game too much to, heaven forbid, demonstrate some individuality or humanity other than getting hammered at the pub every night.
The game has changed, the rules have changed, and it’s generally for the better. If you’re the kind of cloud-yelling old coot who’s obsessed with making the game exactly like it was when you were a kid, you’re the reason that there’ve been so many changes and improvements to the rules. The rest of us enjoy the game just fine thanks; you should come out and join us.