In Spain, they say that Atlético Madrid's striker Diego Costa has "arms like a Swiss Army knife". He's big, surprisingly big at 6ft 2in, mouthy and a bully. He picked up 11 yellow cards in 24 league games last season, excluding a four-game ban in the Europa League for head-butting a player from Viktoria Plzen.
He infuriates opposing defenders. They kick him. They spit on him. It just washes off him. Last season, Atlético Madrid travelled down to Seville to play Real Betis in the Copa del Rey. Just before half time, a defender for Atlético punted a ball 60 yards up field. After it bounced, Antonio Amaya, Betis's central defender headed past his own goalkeeper, who had come out to collect it, straight into Costa's path. Costa passed it into an empty net.
In the tunnel after the full-time whistle, Costa couldn’t help himself. “He was shouting and thanking me for the gift,” said Amaya. “If my team-mates had not held me back, I would have killed him. That shows what kind of person he is: he has no heart and no shame.”
It was precisely Costa's heart that endeared him to Atlético's manager, Diego Simeone, who has overseen a remarkable transformation at Atlético since taking over when the team was mid-table in December 2011, picking up clatter of trophies along the way, including the Europa League in 2012.
Tonight, Atlético face Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the Camp Nou, while sitting on top of the league table in Spain, a point ahead of Barça – with a genuine chance of becoming the first team to break the Barcelona-Real Madrid stranglehold on La Liga since Valencia won the title 10 years ago.
Atlético fans despaired when AS Monaco swooped for Radomel Falcao at the end of last season, another in a line of star strikers – including Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlan and Fernando Torres – to leave the club in the last several years for greater wages (and a shot at glory) elsewhere.
Costa when presented with the opportunity to leave declined, however, reportedly turning down the chance to treble his wages by joining Liverpool last summer. Chelsea, to the tune of £40 million, is the latest club to covet him. He has found a kindred spirit at Atlético in Simeone, who was a notoriously hard man during his playing days with Atlético, Inter and Lazio. The Argentine was impressed when he first took a look at him.
“When I saw him in training, I wanted to die,” said Simeone. “He was unstoppable. Diego Costa transmits a strength that has a contagious effect on the rest of the group. He gives everything, but he has to learn to control himself. People say he plays at the limit; curiously, they also said that about me.”
Simeone kick-started a career that had never properly taken off – Costa joined Atlético in December 2006, but was farmed out every season to the backwaters of La Liga, from Albacete to Valladolid. In 2011, a proposed move to Turkey was scuppered when he got a cruciate ligament injury in his knee.
Simeone's faith in him has provided healthy dividends. As second fiddle to Falcao last season, Costa bagged 10 goals in the league. This season, he's scored 25 in 30 games, and, according to Opta, has a better shot-conversion rate than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – one in three, compared to one in four for Messi, and one in six for Ronaldo.
Costa gets all kinds of goals – headers, bicycle kicks, and a trademark goal, using his strength and pace, on Saturday night in the Basque Country against Athletic Bilbao in the league.
He scored Atlético’s equaliser; Atlético won 2-1 against fourth-placed Athletic. He was put through by Koke, who enjoys a rare telepathy with him, following an interception. He was still 45 yards from goal when he gathered the ball in the middle, but broke away from Athletic’s two chasing defenders before sliding it under the keeper’s arms.
He can use his size and physicality to play with his back to goal as a target man, and he excels at drifting away from markers, by dropping deep or slipping out to the wings, only to re-emerge at the right moment – never there; always arriving, like all good centre forwards.
Costa couldn't be arriving in Barcelona at a worse time for hosts Barça, who are vulnerable when faced with burly centre forwards. Karim Benzema took Barça for two first-half goals (and almost three if it wasn't for a goal-line clearance from Gerard Piqué) in four minutes during the clàsico.
It’s a measure of Costa’s chutzpah that he has chosen to forsake the country of his birth, Brazil, in the year that it will host the finals of the World Cup. Costa made his debut for Spain last month against Italy, having played as a substitute in two friendlies last year for Brazil. Costa has a Spanish passport, a Spanish daughter, and speaks better Spanish than is normal for Brazilian players in La Liga.
He moved to Spain when he was 18 years old. He is 25 now. “He was formed here,” in Spain national team manager Vicente del Bosque’s choice phrase.
Atlético and Barça played out scoreless draws the last two times they have met each other, both contests turned into dog fights, as Simeone likes it. It could fall to Costa to find the space to score tonight, by fair means or foul.