Crystal Palace fans witnessed something extraordinary on Sunday, in the aftermath of another incident where Wilfried Zaha’s character was brought into question, but the outcome was very different.
Whenever Zaha is subjected to fouls, there’s a noise, a humming sound of those just itching to call him a cheat. An undercurrent of consternation just waiting to explode. And yet, at the Emirates stadium, for the first of many times, it was all sucked into the ether. It was a moment where reality and fantasy collided and the fallacy of Zaha being a diver suffered cataclysmic damage. Silence followed.
Those who were so ready to criticise Zaha at any given opportunity have had the air sucked out of their lungs and cramp stiffen their fingers. Their comments of the past weigh so heavily on their chests that they can’t mutter a word of defiance.
They are those who smeared Zaha as a diver. A cheat. A scoundrel. A fraud. They have accused him of feigning injury, all the while he’s fallen victim to heinous fouls. They watched as he was repeatedly targeted. They cheered as he bemoaned his treatment and the lack of protection.
They have seen replays, frame-by-frame dissections of the moments of contact, evidence that immediately contradicts their assertions, and they have become further entrenched. They claim he’s dived before, and that there is evidence, and that it happens all the time — and yet they can’t prove it.
It is their silence which is so deafening. Against Arsenal, when Callum Chambers planted his leg in Zaha’s path, the majority of the Emirates crowd jeered when referee Martin Atkinson determined he’d dived and flashed a yellow card. Zaha the diver had been found out. Zaha the diver had done what he’d done before. Zaha the diver got what he deserved.
But Zaha didn’t dive. What Atkinson witnessed was a foul. An incident so obvious it could be determined not to have been a dive as soon as it happened. There were no theatrics, there was no acting. What replays show was contact. Not just slight, but impactful. Enough to make the most dynamic of players fall to the ground. And instead of judging the incident on his merit, Atkinson followed the crowd.
Replays prove this, but they won’t be analysed. They show the moment Atkinson had a choice between awarding what he saw or punishing what he didn’t. For a split second he goes to point at the spot - but then he dithers, and in that moment he decides to fall back on what he believed to be the truth. That Zaha was a diver and that he should be punished as such.
This moment won’t be reviewed, it won’t have column inches dedicated to it, it won’t be subject to the 24 hour news cycle. But it provided insight into the thought process of a Premier League referee. This wasn’t an incident open to interpretation. Atkinson’s sightlines weren’t hindered. He had a clear view of an obvious foul, and he opted to label Zaha a cheat rather than risk the ignominy of not doing so. Refereeing isn’t easy. This decision was.
Ultimately, this is where VAR really works, and what it primarily should be used to remedy. This was a moment of gross injustice. A moment that least season would have gone unchanged, where the ruling would have been lamented but the booking and the diver tag would have remained. It was an incident that reversed the momentum of the game. But for VAR, it might not have been.
But it is the silence of some of Zaha’s most vociferous detractors that is most telling. Those who have previously said Zaha goes down easily and willingly haven’t admitted their own fallibility. At a point where authority has admitted Zaha the diver didn’t dive, they have kept quiet.
They will continue to suggest that the label is fair because of previous infractions. Yet his only other booking for a dive, against Watford a couple of seasons ago, was also proven to be a foul. There was no VAR back then to reverse that yellow card though.
Had that decision at Arsenal on Sunday not been reversed, the Palace winger would have been subject to radio chatter and paragraphs filled with explanations absolving Atkinson of blame, that what he saw was subjective. That to some it might have been a dive, and to others it wasn’t.
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