Since his first days as Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte made a specific wish to start his stint: keeping Diego Costa.
In spite of the huge budget granted by owner Roman Abramovič, which would allow the club to target some top level players, the Italian coach was sure he already had his ideal striker, the one who would lead the team towards goals, points and trophies, to get the club back on the right track after last year’s awful title defence. Conquering has been a constant throughout Diego Costa’s career since his childhood, which didn’t follow the same path as many other Brazilian talents. Back then, in Lagarto, Northeastern Brazil, poverty was not the main issue of the Costas—in that town with a population of 100.000 inhabitants, possibilities were the hardest thing to find.
Even today, although a university livened the place up, Lagarto remains a network of a bumpy roads and wide fields surrounding the town centre, with the marketplace being the main (and only) local landmark. Along one of these roads, the Costas’ house can be recognised by its eye-catching façade and the people queuing outside every time Diego comes to visit his parents and grandparents, whose house includes a pitch where he plays with his mates, as well as enjoying trips to the likes of Aracajù. Back in the 90s, apart from the Boula de Ouro social project, which consisted of some rather chaotic training sessions, Diego first kicked the ball in the streets, already showcasing those qualities that would become a trademark of his play, as his friend Prefeitinho says in Costa’s autobiography “The Art of War”, written by Fran Guillén:
For him, there was no such thing as a lost ball. Other players see a ball that looks out of reach and they let it go. Not this guy. He has no fear, he wants the ball, he wants to score and he’ll fight tooth and nail to do so.
Professional football, however, seemed a long way off. After moving to São Paulo with his family, a 14-year-old Diego considered quitting football and taking up a proper job as “sometimes I had to stay in because I couldn’t face going out on a date and letting the girl pay”. Alongside his uncle Edson, Diego would drive a truck to the Paraguay border and the two would stock up on goods to sell them again in the Galeria Pagé shopping centre. However, Edson went on spreading the word about his talented nephew, and eventually Barcelona Esportivo Capela de Ibiùna gave the then-16 Diego a chance. With this shirt, the boy would perform in the Taça de Sao Paulo, a local tournament, catching the eye of super agent Jorge Mendes, who offered him a move to Sporting Braga.
“The minute I came off I talked to Mendes’ representative […]. I didn’t hesitate for a moment because I knew that Jorge was behind the offer and that he was pretty much the best in the world,” Diego said. This leap in the dark was a cause of concern for Zeinha, who persuaded São Caetano to offer the same money for the player to stay in Brazil, without the risk of being “swallowed” by the ruthless European football world. Stubborn and determined, as the real Nordestino, Diego replied:
If you don’t let me go, I’ll run away anyway.
The Portugal switch was just the start of a climb that would include a lot of “he’s good but…”, although the first turning point was already there. Six months after his arrival, coach Rui Bento’s Penafiel signed the striker on loan. “I could see that he was something special immediately, a rough diamond,” said the Portuguese boss.
Rumors of a new talented Brazilian player reached the ears of Javier Hernández, a scout for Atlético Madrid, who went incognito to see him in action: “I could tell that he wasn’t following any kind of healthy diet because he was a bit overweight. He obviously still needed a lot of work, but the boy was running all over the pitch, taking on all.comers with a kind of ferocity I had never seen before […].
I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is a 17-year-old kid’.
Everything was sorted out soon—Atletico closed the deal after a meal at Jorge Mendes’ house in Oporto, paying €1,5 million for a guy who had played 3 games in the Portuguese second division. The colchoneros’ first goal was to take Diego out of a league deemed too weak for him. In January 2007, he was back to Braga, scored his first European goal kicking Parma out of Europe League, and then moved to Atlético Madrid in the summer. Since 2007, for many summers, Diego Costa would just imagine how football life in Madrid would be, as the club would regularly send him out on loan. Back then, he was such an unknown player that, during his presentation to the media, the Spanish side provided journalists with a DVD showing some footage of the Brazilian. It was at Celta Vigo that Diego started writing the first pages of his footballing CV, which would feature great skills, as well as those attitude problems that the player, at times, still shows today. These limits spoiled his reputation to the eyes of many fans, but not those working with him.
Antonio Alfaro, an agent involved in the striker’s move to Albacete (2008), recalled: “He can lose it completely and for three seconds he’s ready to kill, but then it’s all over and he’s the sweetest guy in the world.” However, Diego probably never saw the fact of “going to the limit” as a real issue. For a guy growing up in the streets, always up for a scuffle, physical contact is essential: “I’m not saying i’m an angel—I’m no angel. You can see that. But every time I play I will play the same way because that’s the way I am. That’s what I need to do in order to support my family. That’s my bread and butter; also that’s what I need to do for this club, for the fans and for all the people involved in this club […]. You have to ask yourself how many times have I injured someone? Never. I’ve never injured another player on purpose. I’m not going to change the way I play because I got banned for a few games now.
I’m always loyal, I always go 100 per cent, I always go to the limit but the people who think I am a violent player, it’s because they interpret football a different way.
After the game I shake hands with the defender. Job done, I go home, he goes home. We’re all mates. It’s all good.”
Something that explains how the unusual friendship with defender Sergio Ramos could develop after several battles on the pitch. “If I have to give Sergio Ramos a kick, then so be it. And he likewise will kick me if he has to. But it’s about competition. It’s only when we’re playing,” Costa said.
Following stints with Celta Vigo, Albacete, Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano, with the temptation to put an end to his time in Madrid, Diego Costa saw his moment come almost by chance. In summer 2012, with Salvio and Diego left for the final non-EU slot in the squad, a lucrative offer from Benfica for the Argentinian paved the way for Costa’s permanence and explosion under Diego Simeone.
Diego had made it, after years spent wandering around the whole of Spain. A long path, mainly due to a specific reason according to former Atletico Madrid football director García Pitarch: “I have a theory: Costa always had the potential to become a great player but he lacked 300 games. That’s the number of games your average 18-year-old La Liga footballer would have already played at youth level. Diego’s problem was that he had never played in an organised team and had no experience of the dressing room, of being part of a team. He lacked any sense of discipline, of belonging to a club […]. He needed all those bookings, the red cards, the fury, the dives, the spitting—you need to make mistakes, you need to learn.” Finally, Diego’s uphill was over. But not his need to achieve; that would continue with José Mourinho and Antonio Conte, the perfect managers to fan the fire burning inside the striker. During his first training session with Chelsea, Diego Costa asked his mate Oscar to introduce him John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanović, and translate a brief sentence:
I go to war. You come with me.
Maybe Conte never knew it, but he just needed few minutes to realise he already had the man he was looking for in his squad, one who would always leave everything on the pitch before the final whistle. Just as he did after a 2-2 draw against Swansea, one of his first Chelsea games under Conte, when despite Diego scoring twice the camera caught him screaming in anger at the end of the game—he would have wanted another ball to chase, another fight with a defender, another goal to deliver victory to his family, which he’s ready to protect every match at all cost.
Extracts from “Diego Costa: The art of war” by Fran Guillen
Diego Costa certification ©Barcelona Esportivo Capela de Ibiùna archive
Diego Costa at Atlético Madrid ©Andy Hooper