Diego Costa’s journey from the poor city of Lagarto in north-east Brazil to become one of the Premier League’s best strikers stands now as one of modern football’s fairy tales. Just how hard that journey was, and the scrapes he endured along the way, have been vividly brought together by the Spanish journalist Fran Guillen in his new biography of the Chelsea striker, Diego Costa: The Art of War.
In extracts in The Independent today, friends and former team-mates tell Guillen how Costa went from a teenage truck driver working with his uncle in Brazil to one of the most-feared strikers in the Premier League. He came to Europe as a raw, boisterous 16-year-old, and via loan spells at four different clubs, one brief move to Real Valladolid, as well as surviving a cruciate ligament injury in 2011, finally got his chance at his parent club Atletico Madrid.
The book reveals a mischievous character who would, for example, pretend to kidnap the club doctor at Albacete and hide under piles of grass cuttings on the training pitch. But there was a principled side too, a man prepared to stand up for club staff over unpaid wages. Team-mates talk of the two aspects to his personality: a win-at-all-costs warrior on the pitch, but a loyal friend off it – and a man devastated by the accident that killed his beloved Yorkshire Terrier.
Growing up in Lagarto, north-east Brazil
He would take [to football training] his neighbour Mario Cesar, who was speech-and-hearing impaired. “Diego insisted on bringing along this kid,” says Flavio Augusto Machado, his first coach. “I wasn’t happy and I said so. Mario just couldn’t understand what I said, but Diego was always there to translate for him.”
Only when he was 16 was Costa scouted by the small-town second-tier professional club, Barcelona in Ibiuna, Sao Paulo state. Costa: “There was no infrastructure, no resources in the town where I grew up.”
Moving to Europe: Sporting Braga, in Portugal, in 2006, then back on loan in 2007 after joining Atletico
Dani Mallo, Braga goalkeeper. “He [Costa] was actually pretty full of himself from the start. Almost too confident. Always blasting out his music. I remember him taking the piss out of me when he’d been there for about four days. And I was 10 years his senior!”
On loan at Celta Vigo in 2007-08
Team-mate Eugenio Gonzalez: “I remember how passionate he was about football. Training wasn’t enough for him and he used to play with his mates on the university pitches at 11pm. I said to him, ‘Diego, you can’t keep doing that’.”
Choosing the right loan clubs for Costa’s development
Jesus García Pitarch, then Atletico’s director of football: “I told him that Malaga was out of the question. All I could think of was that boy let loose on the Costa del Sol. The people at Celta Vigo had kept me informed about the things that had happened whilst he was there and there was no way I would consider Malaga.”
Going to Albacete on loan in 2008-09
Albacete director of football, Maximo Hernandez: “Diego was labouring under a couple of serious misconceptions when he arrived. First of all, he had no idea that Albacete wasn’t on the coast and therefore didn’t have a beach. Secondly, he thought he was coming to a much better team.”
Minor misdemeanours at Albacete
Vicente Ferre de la Rosa, an administrator at the club, on the complaints from one of Costa’s neighbours: “On one occasion they [Costa and friends] had a porn movie blaring out and the poor woman came down to tell them to turn the volume down. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like making love?’ a wide-eyed Costa asked her sweetly.”
Costa’s pet Yorkshire Terrier
Team-mate Marco Navas: “I had a dog as well and we used to have a real laugh with them. Although mine was bigger, he was really scared of Diego’s dog. That thing might have been small, but my God, it was fierce – not unlike its owner.”
... and his devastation at its death
Atletico team-mate Paulo Assuncao: “Diego brought his Yorkshire Terrier to Madrid but one day when he was parking and didn’t realise the dog was behind the car, he reversed over it. He was devastated, totally depressed for a month. When I asked him why he was so low he practically broke down. ‘I can’t believe it. I killed my dog. He came out of the house to greet me and I didn’t see him and I ran over him.’”
Taking a stand at Albacete
Albacete medical assistant, Manolo Bleda: “The club decided to pay the players but not the rest of the staff. When he heard that, Diego refused to train until everyone was paid. In 35 years I have never known anyone else take a stand like that.”
Eduardo Rodríguez Vellando, the Albacete club doctor: “One day the president came into the dressing room. He was going round everyone shaking their hands. Diego waited for his turn, and then kept his hands by his side and asked if the kit men had been paid. ‘I’m not shaking your hand until you pay them,’ he said.”
The team joker
During stays in hotels for away matches, Costa would place a pillow case over his head and “kidnap” the unsuspecting club doctor. On another occasion, he apparently vanished during a training session. The hunt for the striker ended when Costa emerged from his position, submerged in a pile of cut grass behind a lawnmower.
If the jacuzzi was overflowing with foam, or if members of the coaching staff found themselves suddenly locked inside the sauna, the culprit was always the same. Verza, his team-mate, recalls that by now Costa was known merely as “that fucking Brazilian”.
The player and the person
Valladolid team-mate, Alberto Marcos: “Diego’s old school – what happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch. He can have a bust-up with you and be close to killing you and then, a few hours later you’re having dinner together. It’s like he steps into another world when he plays but he never leaves the field looking to get even. He just doesn’t hold grudges.”
Weight problems during pre-season 2010
June arrived with no sign of the Brazilian at pre-season training. Eventually he appeared, four days late and out of shape. “Blame my mum,” he said, “she’s far too good a cook”.
His battles with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos
Costa: “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.”
How the Spanish press saw Costa
Journalist Jose Antonio Martin Otin: “He’s like your typical Sunday morning footballer who turns up with three aims: he wants a game, he wants to score and he wants a bit of a fight.”
“Diego Costa could invade an average-sized country all by himself”: journalist Santi Gimenez.
Switching from Brazil to Spain
Cirilo Gutierrez, a former kitman for Atletico: “We have a couple of sayings in Spain: ‘It’s not where you’re born but where you flourish’ and ‘Gratitude is the sign of noble souls’. He felt that he owed Spain a lot.”
The Brazilian response
Slogan at car dealership in the Brazilian state of Ceara: “Unlike Diego Costa, this car is something Brazilians can be proud of”.
But back in Costa’s native Lagarto...
The decision [to call him into the Spain squad in February 2014] was celebrated with a fireworks display... cars blared their horns. People wore Spain shirts.
His first day at Chelsea
Oscar [his Brazilian team-mate] is looking for three of his team-mates. He wants to introduce them to someone. Diego Costa has arrived for his first day as a Chelsea player and he has something he wants to say. He doesn’t have much English yet, but Oscar has helped him with the words. He’s been practising a single, short sentence. Actually, a mission statement. Oscar introduces Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic and Matic. They shake hands, then Costa straightens up and delivers his pitch in heavily-accented, halting English. “I go to war. You come with me.”
‘Diego Costa: The Art of War’ is out now in paperback and ebook published by BackPage/Arena Sport
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