By Paul Morrissey, in Madrid – Follow on Twitter here
More likely to lob a loogy right in your eyeball than execute a stepover; more British bulldog in style than Brazilian ballerina, more hood rat than suburbanite. This season’s Copa del Rey top scorer doesn’t have the touch of a Benzema, the class of a Falcao, or the predator’s instinct of a David Villa.
You won’t find him on the front page of Esquire or parading himself on social networks. Too underground. Too raw. Diego ‘Cabron’ Costa is a fighting striker like no other. Who lets his fists talk before his feet. Who carries the street in his soul; the streets that defined him as a man and as a player. Diego Costa is a puto cabron and he doesn’t give a fuck what you think.
Why? Because he started from the bottom and is currently the most effective, selfless striker in activity. To put it simply, he is probably the best bad player in the world.
‘I grew up thinking landing elbows was the normal thing. My school was the street.’
It all started in Lagarto, a forgotten little pueblo of the suffocatiing metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil. A nod to geographic determinism, Lagarto meaning ‘alligator’ in Spanish, so reptilian is our cabron in his movement and acts. Orwell said ‘every man has the face he deserves at 50’; Costa’s applies at half that.
At 24, its got the streets etched all over it; the streets where he learned the game and lived his life.
Far from the praihas maravilhosas of Rio or the gleaming futsal centres of Porto Alegre, Costa learnt everything he knows en la calle, a stray alley cat. No nets, no grass; just blood sweat and tears. ‘We weren’t hungry or poor, but we had it tough. My pueblo had no football structures or resources. So we made our own street teams and played against other pueblos.’
Hardcore. What he missed in coaching, he gained in resourcefulness. A Masters in how to live by your wits from the shcool of life.
It’s where he became the ruthless Malandro that he is today. Not the flip-flap type who uses his tricks to evade challenges; the fighting type. At the age Wayne Rooney signed his first professional contract and scored his first Premier League goal and Radaemel Falcao played in the U-17 World Cup, Costa was still a street baller ducking and diving, smuggling counterfeit merchandise across the Paraguyan border (who hasn’t?), just so he could have a few Reias to take a girl for a drink.
The life of a vagrant; a million miles from the pristine sheen of La Liga BBVA. A footballing OVNI, an alley cat who broke all the rules on how to become a professional footballer. At this stage of his life, he had a far greater chance of fulfilling the destiny of a Lil Ze than a Lil Ronaldo.
But the ball kept him clean. He trained every day because that was what you did. Spotted by a Sporting Braga representative in a game he wasn’t even supposed to be playing (suspended, obviously), Costa was offered a contract on the spot, and set sail for Europe. ”Graças a Deus”.
‘I couldn’t control myself, I had no respect for opponents. A footballing education would have taught me these things”
Cue culture shock. The lack of a conventional footballing education showed itself all too regularly, as Costa struggled to cast off the mores of the street in this civilised association version of futebol.
Erring from one Iberian minnow to the next (four loan moves involving seven different clubs) collecting 63 bookings and 4 red cards – his trajectory reflects more the life of an 1850s prize-fighter than the cocooned life of the modern professional footballer. That’s because nothing was ever given to Costa.
Deprived of a footballing education, Costa is slowly turning this to his advantage. Modest to a fault, he not only admits he’s no crack, he goes as far as insisting he’s a bit of an imposter. A bit shit really. ”I run. If you run at least you can trick people into thinking you’re playing well.” A bit of a Brazilian Heskey. This is a striker who’s Wikipedia page describes him as ‘a footballer’, in very deliberate inverted commas. A fighter before a futbolero.
If he’s partnering Radamel Falcao in La Liga’s current second best team, he owes it all to work and sacrifice: he’s scrapped, fought, spat and screamed to make it to the top. Metaphorically and literally. Because with Costa, it seems try as he may to self-gentrify into a prim and proper futbolista, the street will always out. He’s the wildcat who won’t be tamed.
El Cholo Simeone, Pi Patel to his Richard Parker, is convinced he can ease Costa’s street spirit through Good Will Hunting, while maintaining that grinta that defines this Atleti side. Simeone, an exponent of the dark arts himself as a player (Becks likes this), is only too aware of the balancing act required. The tipping point came during Atleti’s Europa League match at Viktoria Pilzen last November. Sent off for a needless act of aggression on a hapless Czech, Simeone decided this would be the last time Costa ‘lost his papers’.
It had to be. Simeone saw second place was up for grabs, and that Costa was of no use to him sitting in the stands. ‘Everything goes, as long as you can keep yourself on the pitch to do it.’ His teammates told him the same.
Falcao-Costa, the Original Odd Couple
That really was the tipping point. Costa’s gone from being an unpredictable liability to Atleti’s most important player. It’s not like he’s become a zen peacemaker; he’s just working to keep his temper in check, but the trash talking will never leave him. Booked a mere three times since the ‘change of chip’ (old habits die hard), he’s provoked 14 yellow cards and 4 reds out of duped opponents, along with being La Liga’s most fouled player. Maybe a source of shame for other strikers, a boon for Costa.
And a boon for Atleti: the more time rival defenders spend trying to kick, spit on, and stamp on him, the less time they’re spending on his striker partner, that guy Falcao. Falcao-Costa, the original odd couple: the clean, fair, wapo Falcao; and…Costa.
When asked about incidents with the pair, Ramos described it perfectly: ‘I have no problem with Falcao, he plays with respect, never looking for contact…the total opposite of Costa.”
It’s an old school partnership that’s flourishing into one of La Liga’s best, with Costa dropping deep and running into the channels, and Falcao loitering up top with intent. If Falcao finishes the chances, Costa makes them. Just don’t ever call Costa a ‘false 9’; he’s a runner, a fighter, and a worker. Basta.
But Beyond the uncouth, uncultured style, there’s a bit of a footballer in there. His performance in the Copa del Rey semi-final was classic Costa: a goal, a brilliant one-two assist with Falcao, and the provocation of two opponents, resulting in red cards for Gary Medel and Kondogatoire. Where most strikers count their goals, Costa’s now counting the ire and hate he attracts.
Playing by his own rules as he always has.
This dedication to the cause ha seen him go from being a clumsy unwanted back-up for Forlan and Aguero, to a Colchonero idol.
As much as they love their cracks, a luchador will always find his way into the hearts of Atleti fans.
Contacted via mail, Dani Ldo Hidalgo of Madrid daily AS sums it up:
‘He became a real Atleti player after the games against Madrid and Betis. He was a bit out of order spitting on Ramos, but he unjustly became the focus of a negative media campaign, when really it was Ramos who’d instigated it. Just like Ujfalusi’s tackle on Messi a few seasons ago, when one of our own hard workers comes under attack, we rally around him. Now he’s one of us.’
Enough to catch the eye of the Selecção?
Steady as she goes. On the night he overtook his very antithesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, as Copa del Rey top scorer with seven tantos, our cabron inevitably had to mar the achievement with the controversy that shadows his every move: Sevilla’s Kondogatoire accused him of making monkey noises at him. Progress is a slow process.
Diego Costa, the bad guy turning good who just can’t leave the streets behind.
All quotes via El Pais