Since his early days as Chelsea’s manager, Antonio Conte had expressed a specific wish: to keep Diego Costa. In spite of the usual budget made available by Abramovich, and therefore of the possibility of arriving at top-tier strikers, the Italian coach was convinced that he had his ideal striker in the squad, the one with whom to go and win goals, points and trophies, which the disastrous previous season had made a mirage.
Conquer, in fact, is a key verb in Diego Costa’s vocabulary.
He has been since his childhood, which does not quite follow the path of many other Brazilian talents – in Lagarto, in the Northeast of Brazil, the main problem of Diego’s family is not poverty. His mother Josileide and father, known as Zeinha, are certainly not sailing in gold, but what is really missing, in that largest town in Milan but which has “just” 100,000 inhabitants, are opportunities. Today, as then, despite the construction of a university that has “revived” the area, Lagarto is a network of more or less bumpy streets and vast fields on the edge of the city center, which comes alive during the market. In one of these streets, the Costa family’s house can be recognized by a façade that is slightly more conspicuous than the others, and by the queue that forms in front of the threshold when word spreads of Diego’s many returns. As soon as he has the opportunity, the player divides his time between his parents’ house, his grandparents’ house, with an inevitable illuminated football field where he can play with old friends, and a few trips to Aracajù and its surroundings, where he can find a bit of sea.
In the 1990s, however, apart from a sort of social project called Boula de Ouro, who gathered the boys of the area for very unorganized training sessions, Diego gave his first kicks in the street and a few games with friends, where, however, those who knew him already noticed something unique.
For him, there was no such thing as a ‘lost ball’. Other players, seeing the ball far away, out of reach, let it go, but not him,
tells the story of his friend Prefeitinho in Diego’s autobiography, “The Art of War”, written by Fran Guillén. Professional football, however, seemed so far away that, after moving with his family to São Paulo at the age of 14, the boy thought of giving up and finding a real job, because “Sometimes I had to stay home because I didn’t feel like going on a date and letting the girl pay for me”.
Together with his uncle Edson, Diego drove trucks to the border with Paraguay to buy products at low prices to resell in the Galerìa Pagé shopping center. It was Edson, however, convinced of his nephew’s footballing talent, who pushed him towards that dream that was fading – after several attempts with other teams, Barcelona Esportivo Capela de Ibiùna agreed to take the sixteen-year-old Diego into the team, at his first experience in a professional club. With this shirt, in a match at the Taça de São Paulo, the boy attracted the interest of Jorge Mendes, who was present in the stands. Not even the time to leave the field, that a representative of the agent offered the boy a transfer to Sporting Braga.
“I didn’t hesitate for a minute, I knew that Jorge [Mendes] was behind that offer, that he was one of the best in the world.” A leap in the dark that frightened the family, with Zeinha bringing her son a proposal from the São Caetano: the same money but the permanence in Brazil, where the risk of ending up in the European meat grinder of talents who do not break through was not there. As a true Nordestino, however, Diego followed his determined and stubborn soul:
If you don’t let me go, I’ll run away and go anyway.
The move to Portugal was for Diego Costa the beginning of a long climb, punctuated by the refrain “he’s good, but…”, by doubts to be dispelled, despite the turning point that came very soon. After six months without playing to regularise his paperwork, the striker went on loan to Rui Bento’s Penafiel in the Portuguese second division. “I immediately saw something special in him, like a rough diamond,” the technician said.
Rumors of a new Brazilian talent reached the ears of Javier Hernandez, Atletico Madrid’s scout, who incognito decided to attend a Penafiel match.
It was clear that he was not eating a healthy diet, as he was a bit overweight. But I’d never seen a player chase down every opponent with that ferocity […], I remember thinking, ‘He can’t be 17.’
An interview at Jorge Mendes’ home in Porto, and Atletico closed the deal, paying €1.5 million for a player with just three Portuguese Serie B games in his legs. The first objective of the colchoneros was to take the boy out of a league that was too low: in January 2007 Diego returned to Braga, scored a goal in the Europa League by eliminating Parma, and in the summer he moved to Atletico Madrid. From 2007, for several summers, Diego Costa would only sniff out Madrid’s football life, before being sent on loan elsewhere each time. At that time, the striker was so unknown that, for his presentation, the club decided to provide journalists with a DVD with his footage.
It was at Celta Vigo that Diego began to write the real pages of his Spanish CV, which would include impressive technical gestures but also those behavioral problems that the player still carries with him today. Limitations that have tarnished his reputation for many fans, especially opponents, but not for those who have worked with him. Antonio Alfaro, one of the agents involved in the striker’s transfer to Albacete (2008), recalls:
He can completely lose his mind for a few seconds, then it’s all over and he’s the most adorable guy in the world.
Diego, for his part, has never seen, and perhaps never will, the fact of “pushing himself to the limit” as a real flaw. For those like him who grew up playing in the street, where fights, elbows and more were the order of the day, physical contact, especially if you play as a striker, is essential.
“I’m not saying I’m an angel. They are not, as you can see. But I’m always going to play like this, that’s what I need to support my family, the club and its fans. I’ll always be like that on the pitch. It’s my character – off the pitch I’m different, but I’m not going to change. You have to ask yourself how many times I’ve injured a player on purpose… None. It won’t be a few more days of disqualification that will make me change. I’m always loyal, I always give 100%, anyone who thinks I’m violent sees football in a different way. For me, I can go defenders, they can do the same with me. What happens on the pitch, after the final whistle stays there: we shake hands, I go home and so does he, everything is fine.” A thought that makes us understand how the unthinkable friendship with Sergio Ramos, one of Diego’s closest teammates in the training camps of the Spanish national team, could have been born after numerous battles on the field.
If I have to kick Sergio, so be it. In the same way, he will be able to do it too. But it’s only for competition, when we’re playing.
said the striker after one of the many Real-Atletico.
After Celta Vigo, Albacete, Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano, and the temptation at times to end the rojiblanca adventure, Diego Costa saw his time come almost by chance. In the summer of 2012, with him and Salvio left to contend for the last non-EU spot, it was a rich offer from Benfica for the Argentine that finally determined his permanent stay at VicenteCalderón, which would end with a 3rd place in La Liga, laying the foundations for success the following year.
Diego had made it, after years of incessant wandering.
A long journey, mainly due to one reason according to Garcia Pitarch, former sporting director of Atletico: “I have a theory: Costa has always had the potential to break through, but he was 300 games away. That’s the number of games an average 18-year-old coming to La Liga has already played at youth level. Diego had never played in organized clubs, he didn’t know what it meant to be in a locker room, to be part of a team. He lacked the sense of discipline, of belonging to a club […]. He needed all those admonitions, expulsions, anger, to become what he is now – you have to make mistakes to learn.”
Finally Diego’s ascent was over, but not his conquests, which would continue with Simeone, Mourinho and Antonio Conte, almost in a natural path, the perfect coaches to continue to feed the fire that burns in the naturalized Spanish player.
During his first training session at Chelsea, Diego Costa asked his friend Oscar to introduce him to Terry, Cahill, Ivanović and Matić, and to help him translate a simple sentence with which to introduce himself.
I’m going to war. You come with me.
Perhaps Conte never knew this, but it will have only taken him a few minutes to understand that he already has his man in the team, one who will never leave the field without having given everything he has first. And he must have realised that he had made the right choice when, after a brace in the 2-2 draw against Swansea, Diego clenched his fists and screamed in anger in the middle of the field: he wanted another ball to chase, another fight with a defender, another goal to bring victory to his family. Perhaps this is why two sanguine and gritty men like the former national team coach and the Spain striker. But it doesn’t matter: Madrid was able to welcome him once again, with all its desire to recover every single ball.
Photo by ©LaPresse