Bye Bye Badman?

by Joseph Sexton

Diego-Costa-Atletico-Madrid-2013_2902425Diego Costa is one of the true characters of La liga. Maybe ‘character’ doesn’t quite cover it, though.

Call him a joker, call him a clown. Many have called him far worse things which would be out of place on a family website like this.

After one particularly feisty game against Betis last December where he proved the match-winner, Marca went so far as to call him ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Costa’. He’s the cabrón… the fighter; and the wind up merchant supreme.

However this season, he’s also a man on a mission. And one who, increasingly, appears to have a more mature head on his shoulders. But equally, one who is not willing to go too far in compromising what makes him great; for better or worse.

Both sides were evident on Sunday when Atlético Madrid visited Sevilla. It was a daunting test to open the season with. Last season, the clubs clashed four times. Last season also, Diego Costa clashed- quite literally- with half of the Sevilla team. And bench.

But, just as then, so now; when it mattered most it was a test they passed. With flying colours.

And it was Diego Costa who made all the difference with two exquisite goals.

For much of his career, he’s been a journeyman. A rebel without a cause. A thermos-flask head. He made little impact back home in Brazil at youth level, but was spotted by Portugal’s SC Braga back in 2006.

After one successful season on loan at second division Penafiel, Atlético Madrid saw enough to fork out €1.5m to bring him to the Spanish capital. But for years, and over many loan spells, he failed to convince anyone that he was little more than a slightly thuggish young fella with severe anger-management issues.

Indeed, this time last year he didn’t even know which club he’d be playing at, as he alluded to some months back. But this summer, not only did Atleti bat away a £20m bid from Liverpool, they offered him a fat new contract.

“It’s put me in a good frame of mind. It means I’ve been doing my job well, but also that the responsibility’s grown and I’ve got to be ready”.

From being a nobody to being a full Brazil international- who capped him just as he looked set to be called up by Spain- in the space of 18 months, it’s been an incredible turnaround.

It was January of last year that it all began to fall into place.

Costa was sent across town to Rayo Vallecano that transfer window. Nobody had given the club a hope of coming up the season before, and less still gave them a prayer of surviving.

And yet, with the league’s smallest budget they’d made a mockery of all that by entering the winter break in the top half.

It couldn’t last. A succession of losses saw them plummet, and soon they were battling for survival. But along with Michu, Diego Costa’s goals helped them beat the drop by the skin of their teeth on the final day. In his time in Vallecas, the Brazilian netted nine times in sixteen matches.

Last year he was given his chance by Diego Simeone, initially in Europe. By December, he’d made himself an integral part of the side, as Falcao’s foil.

And though his strike rate in the league was a respectable 10 from 31, he finished the season as top scorer in their march to the Copa del Rey title. Combined with the Europa League, he struck 10 in 13 cup appearances.

But the darkness was never too far from the surface. He picked up his fair share of yellow cards, though less than we might think. He also proved adept at getting opponents booked and sent to the stands. He dived at times, but mostly he niggled. A word here, a sneaky punch there.

And worse. Much worse.

Against Sevilla he got under his opponents skin like a rash, drawing a red card in a nasty spiteful encounter. Afterwards, Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia was incensed, claiming on Twitter that he had been racially abused.

By time the same sides met over two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-final, it had become a running battle. And one which all parties were only too happy to resume last Sunday.

Against Real Madrid in the league he was caught on camera punching, gobbing, abusing, and even surreptitiously flicking spit off his gloves all over Pepe and Sergio Ramos.

Video uploaded by Med Freeman

Amazingly at the final whistle, they all took the old Sepp Blatter diktat. Costa warmly embraced Ramos, before seeking out Pepe for more of the same and said “It’s just football guys. No bother, eh!”

Without going too far down the road of moral relativism, this is sure to appear shocking in our own cultural context in the British Isles. This writer is not going to defend these actions for a minute. Quite the opposite.

But a certain amount of to-and-fro is accepted, or more correctly, more accepted in other parts of the world. The mind boggles at what would result this season had that Liverpool bid been accepted and Costa paired alongside Luís Suárez.

Probably, Suárez would have come off looking the good egg of the pair.

The Suárez parallel is instructive, though only to a point.

Off the field, his colleagues have described him as “a great guy”, “really sweet” and, always in a happy mood”.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. It brings to mind the reflex English managerial defence when a player throws an elbow, or worse, puts in a leg-breaker.

Not that sort of player. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But it’s true to the extent that we can see it. He comes across as an engaging, matter-of-fact, and well spoken guy not only from this writers’ own personal experience, but from several interviews given this year.

The most recent of those came last week in El País.

It’s been a good pre-season, Costa tells us. “I went home to my town to relax”, he says “had a few kickabouts with my mates outside my aunt’s gaff. They’re pretty handy! They play hard, but they’re also warm and well, like family to me”.

Asked if he’d been taking care of himself, he said he had.

“Yeah, I mean, I ate beans, rice, some meat… you really notice when you arrive back to camp and you’re at your ideal weigh, you hit the ground running. These are things you learn over time and maybe in the past I didn’t help myself.

On the prickly question of his on-field conduct, he insists he’s getting better and that his boss Simeone, who knows a thing or two in this area, has warned him that once the referees have you marked as that kind of a guy, well… one feels the advice may have come a little too late for that.

“Look, I think the refs have been fair with me,” he begins. “and sometimes they’ve had to book me to calm me down”.

“And if you look at the stats, you’ll see I was booked four times in the Europa League and sent off once, but I definitely don’t look and think ‘oh, they could have given me, like, five reds’. No way”.

He continues. “I want to improve, but I won’t change my way of playing either. I’ve never gone in to deliberately hurt someone, that’s important”.

More sinner than sinned against, perhaps? No. Costa would have none of that.

“What’s important is I don’t hurt my team, that I don’t injure an opponent, that I defend my own as they defend theirs. I’ve suffered from going too far and never complained, never will”.

It was put to him that, sometimes he seeks to provoke, and other times he’s been the victim of provocation. But how did he feel looking back on the TV at the infamous spitting incident?

“I know, and though you don’t see [from the reel] who started it, it’s obvious- it [the spitting] was ugly. I won’t deny that for a second” he commenced. “It’s true, but it’s also very easy to say that sitting at home watching all those replays”.

“But on the field, you hear every word. An opponent’s never come up to me and said ‘Oh, Diego, I love you’. You’re always hearing things.”. He goes on. “I’ve been kicked, most times I control myself, others no, and some people can handle that better than others.”

“I know I need to work on that, but if other people know you’re quick-tempered…” he pauses. “Defenders will always look for a fella when they know they can get their goat. I never look for it, but hey, if they come looking for me, they’re gonna find me. But, you have to see who starts it”.

“I will improve on this, I know how I was five years ago and how I am now. I’ve changed and that took a lot of effort”.

Could Atleti go one better this year and split the big two, he was asked. “The gaffer’s given us the right mentality. We’ll get to the end of the season and see what we can do, that’s the idea”.

“If we get near the end, and we’re still in with a shout, then we’ll keep on fighting. When Atleti go for it, we go for it for real. Listen, 90% woulda’ said we couldn’t beat Real in the Cup final, but we’re a unit that knows how to compete.”

Having battled against all odds to claim that cup success, only the foolish would doubt Costa means it when he speaks now.

Whether he can sort out his on-field antics, well. Let’s file that one under ‘remains to be seen’.

For now, anyway.

Author Info

Joseph Sexton

Joseph Sexton

Freelance European football journalist based in Barcelona. Obsessive follower of all things La Liga, Serie A, and League of Ireland with more than a passing interest in the South American scene. Contributor to (amongst others) The Irish Examiner, STV, Forza Futbol, Cork Evening Echo, Eircom Sports Hub, World Football Daily, Spanish Football Podcast, The Elastico, Radio Cadena SER and Sports Tonight Live. (Cork) City 'til I die.

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