Diego Costa: The Street Fighting Man With His Roots in the Past
AS a young boy, Sir Bobby Charlton would bang a ball against a brick wall for hours and hours, passing it to himself from every angle until it was too dark to see.
If he were lucky, he would round up a group of kids for a game in the street or a patch of scrubland in the English northern mining town of Ashington. There wouldn’t be any goals or sidelines, just a bunch of coats for goalposts. There wouldn’t be any adults and certainly no referees.
It was quite likely that when the likes of Charlton and Greaves played for their school or local club teams there wouldn’t be any adults there either. For this was a working class game and the working class had to work; they didn’t have time to coach from the sidelines.
Football was played for love, not for money. If a player was lucky enough to play professionally it was to escape the pits or the factory, not to buy a mansion in the tony suburbs alongside the bankers and stockbrokers.
Fast forward to present day. I coached all three of my children through the extremely well organized AYSO youth soccer leagues in the United States. The kids were enthusiastic to play and the parents couldn’t have been more supportive. They volunteered to help coach, to ref, to run the line and would certainly be there every Saturday cheering the team on.
But when I asked the boys and girls I coached whether they ever played outside practice times, perhaps in a pick-up game over the park, they looked back at me blank-faced. It seemed they never played football without an adult throwing them the ball.
There were regular California kids, some naturally gifted, some not. It was probably their parents who signed them up in the first place. For now it is the kids who mostly have other things to do and the parents who want to be there.
Football is no longer a working class game. The young players who show early promise are plucked from their organized teams and put into academies and “club” teams.
There are paid referees, carefully painted white lines, meticulously manicured grass and, of course, goalposts with nets.
I am sure there are still kids who get together after school with their sweaters as posts, just as I’m sure that these are the children who will grow into adults with a purer love for the game.
All of which brings me around to a street fighter named Diego Costa. In many ways, the Spaniard is a throwback to the center forwards of old, the hardened pros who would run through a brick wall to score a goal.
In the space of half a season he has endeared himself not just to Chelsea fans, but to British supporters in general. They recognize in him the old fashioned values that have largely been lost in the modern game. Part of that, let’s be honest, is an aggression bordering on violence.
It is no coincidence that Costa was still playing football on the streets of the Brazilian town of Lagarto when he was 16. While the likes of Fabregas and Messi were being educated in state-of-the-art facilities with global giants like Barcelona, Costa was scrapping it out on makeshift pitches in the middle of the road.
When he switched to an organized game he was pretty soon banned for punching an opponent and threatening the referee and the rough edges remain.
It’s something of a miracle that Costa’s only been sent off once in his career –for head-butting in a Europa League match. However, he has picked up 28 yellow cards over the past two years, including eight this year for Chelsea, and while he managed to fool the referee with his stamp on Liverpool’s Emre Can and the follow through on Martin Skytel on Tuesday he is unlikely to escape a retroactive punishment once the video is reviewed.
It was no joke for the Liverpool players, but the gag going around afterwards was that if Costa got one more stamp he’d get a free latte.
He makes no apologies, drawing on the experiences of his youth for explanation.
"On the pitch, I fought with everyone. I couldn't control myself. I insulted everyone, I had no respect for the opposition, I thought I had to kill them," he has said.
"Boys who grew up playing in academies are taught to control themselves and respect others, but no-one ever told me otherwise, I didn't have a school to teach me this. I was used to seeing players elbowing each other in the face and thought it was the norm."
Will he tone it down now he’s in the big time? Never. He’s scored 17 goals already this season and if premier league defenses were going to find him out they would have done it by now. He’s the shark that Jose Mourhino was looking for, the penalty box assassin with the smell of blood.
It’s life or death with Costa; he lives and breathes football in the same way he once did as a feisty kid playing on the streets of Brazil.
Bobby Charlton is Sir Bobby now and he has come far from his Northumberland roots in Ashington, but be sure of one thing; he’d give it all up tomorrow for just one more 7 v 7 kick-about with a dirty tennis ball in the shadow-strewn under the streetlamps outside his old house.