A Wild Horse Never Forgets: The Great Contradiction of Diego Costa

A Wild Horse Never Forgets: The Great Contradiction of Diego Costa

To the north-east of Brazil lies the tough, poverty-stricken state of Sergipe. Wide open spaces and crumbling buildings line the vast beach front of the capital, Aracaju.

Out to sea, the horizon is pockmarked by petrol platforms the locals hope will one day offer a brighter future.

We’re already in the wilds of Brazil, and we still haven’t gone far enough to enter Diego Costa country.

A two-hour bus ride west, into the interior, takes you to Lagarto. Once there, the name of the Chelsea and Brazil striker is known to everyone. It’s where Costa will return this summer, as always, after a season of dominance in the Premier League. It’s where his family live. It’s the only place he truly feels at home.

“He can be himself,” says a local historian and professor, Rusel Barroso. “One day he was in town driving and someone asked him to stop for a photo. It was in the middle of the street but he got out anyway and suddenly everyone was coming and the traffic was halted. But nobody could care, least of all Diego.”

Lagarto has a population of around 100,000. An old and attractive Portuguese centre pans out to half-finished houses and dirt tracks as the sprawl expands. Outside of that, pitched on dry rolling hills, are farms mainly responsible for growing cassava and tobacco. It was on these farms Costa’s father, Jose de Jesus, better known as Zeinha, made what little he could.


A mural of Costa in Lagarto | Ewan MacKenna

“It was a hard life; it’s too hot, but what choice was there?” Zeinha says. “The kids were young so (they) never worked there.”

When it came to his boys, Zeinha had a different path in mind. Diego Costa is named after Diego Maradona. His older brother Jair is named after Jairzinho, the legendary Brazil winger who was part of the 1970 World Cup team. Therein lies the ambition of their father. “I was always betting one of my sons would make it,” he says. “Jair used to play better than Diego but he didn’t follow through. But I used to get down and pray to God to give me a son that was a footballer.”

Tellingly, Costa’s parents never left the tougher part of town, but instead bought the house next door, knocked it through and made more room. As I approach for the first time, his mother Josileide is outside with a bucket, talking to neighbours as she washes the remnants of recent building work off of the walls.

She asks that I call back later, so she can put on clean clothes and make-up. When I return the front door is wide open, offering a view of Costa’s trophies from Spain and man-of-the-match awards from England from the street. She invites me in.

“When he’s here, it’s a party every day,” Josileide says. “Over there, out on the street [she points to a graffitied wall with a makeshift awning], he loves sitting there with friends. They are outside having a drink and playing cards. Diego didn’t change; he’s the same guy, he doesn’t like rich-person stuff.”


Costa’s parents at home in Lagarto
Costa’s parents at home in Lagarto | Ewan MacKenna

Costa’s mother recounts the time he got a scholarship at an upscale school in the town as evidence, as he lasted mere weeks because he missed his friends. She says his famous temper has been there all along.

“He has an amazing heart. He’s only angry on the pitch; outside of that he’s such a good guy, friendly with everyone. His temper is in the moment; he gets pissed off with you, he loses it with you, but five minutes later he forgets it. It’s just the way he is, like a thunderstorm. It explodes, and after comes sunshine.”

Costa gets his anger from his father, Josileide says, nodding and smiling in his direction across the table. He doesn’t deny it. In a case reported by local media in 2012, Zeinha was involved in an altercation with a pregnant bank teller in the city. He allegedly threw a punch and missed, then threw a laptop at her, with medical reports showing the unborn child’s heart stopped beating briefly.

Later arrested by police, Zeinha admitted to being drunk, but he denied claims he attacked the woman. When contacted, the journalist who penned the story said he’d no knowledge of writing it.


The trophy cabinet at Costa’s family home in Lagarto | Ewan MacKenna

Today, Zeinha’s only wish is to get back to the farm and carry on as usual. Costa’s mother, meanwhile, is anxious to show me the photos and memorabilia her son has collected—the trophies and the triumphs she never imagined were possible.

Four pitches. One story.

In 1984, Flavio Augusto decided to do something for the poorer kids in and around Lagarto, and he saw football as the answer. He gathered a group of youngsters, had them clean up a wasted area of land and erected two sets of goalposts. When he came back the next day, they’d been chopped down and stolen.

Eventually that land was taken by the council to build an indoor gymnasium, so Flavio went to a farmer friend and asked a favour. It is here Diego Costa’s journey into football begins. “Measure the distance,” Flavio says, as we drive along a dirt track for 15 minutes into the middle of nowhere.

Flavio on the pitch built on farmland that Costa used to play on
Flavio on the pitch built on farmland that Costa used to play onEwan MacKenna
This pitch lies beside the house of Ze de Bento, who donated the land all those years ago. Shirt open with the hardened shoulders and chest of a man who has worked the fields all his life, he tells me his greatest memory of Costa. “He’d cycle here, but there was a problem with his bike, so Diego would get a lift on the crossbar of this kid who was dumb. Every day. They became friends.”

The two were close enough that when Costa finally made it to the big time, he bought his old friend a motorbike to say thank you.

Eventually the council offered a pitch closer to town—a muddy patch enclosed by small and simple houses. They had a stack of slates ready to replace those that were knocked off roofs by wayward shots. They’d stop playing when the bin men drove across the pitch to get their work done. “There was no shower or water in the changing rooms then,” says an elderly man sitting outside his house.

“Diego and those guys would go in his house for a drink of water or to use the shower,” Flavio adds.
Finally came the site of the soccer school Flavio founded and Costa has since put his name to. Originally earmarked for apartments, Flavio decided to borrow the land, hastily hacked down trees and knocked a couple of shacks up.

“I almost got arrested, seriously,” he says. “The local sports minister came and said he’d call the police. ‘Fine,’ I thought. Next thing the mayor calls. ‘What the f–k did you do?’ Eventually he agreed there’s nothing else he could do; I’d already cleared it, I needed the school so he sent a tractor to help with the pitch and it went from there.”

If Costa is the unlikely superstar, then Flavio is the unlikely hero of his story. He weeps repeatedly talking of his famous apprentice and wears an Atletico Madrid jersey from the 2014 Champions League final for the story it tells. Written on the shoulder of the shirt is a message from Costa: “For my coach Flavinho, a hug from the student. Diego.”

Costa’s La Liga title-winning shirt, signed by the entire Atleti team, is hidden away, as Flavio worries it might be stolen. He remembers an interview Costa did before the 2014 World Cup, where Costa said God and Flavio, in that order, were to thank for what he achieved.

He tears up. “When you are from a place like this, you’ve to fight to get anything. If not you’ll have nothing. It’s a north-east thing here in Brazil. This soccer school is proof of that. So is Diego.”

You’ve got to take it in these parts, because no one is going to give it to you. But Diego Costa was always hard work to manage.

Costa’s talent for football earned a scholarship at the local public-private school, but his academic ability was less impressive. “This part of it wasn’t for him,” says a man working behind the counter of the school today. He shows us Costa’s school records and his original birth certificate too, proving once and for all the man is the age he claims to be (28) and not, as many have suggested, a good deal older.


Costa’s birth certificate | Ewan MacKenna

“Everybody said that about him; he always looked older,” says Hermogenes Jose de Andrade, his school coach and the man who recruited Costa. Hermogenes jokes that he’s not sure if the glory was worth all the hassle. Soon enough, the stories start flowing. “A problem child. The way he was born, that anger was there. And before Mourinho, there was me,” he says of Costa’s manager at Chelsea.

One story involves Costa being substituted, taking off his jersey and throwing it at the manager before storming off in a rage. Then there was the time when, having inspired his side to an unassailable 3-0 lead, he was substituted with minutes left. Costa grabbed the ball and drove it into a far-off field while telling Hermogenes, “You can only win with me.”

Hearing such tales and wondering if his coach might be at fault, the school’s director showed up to the town gymnasium to watch Costa play in a futsal match. It took six minutes. An opponent nutmegged Costa, so he turned around and punched him in the face. As Costa walked off the court, the director finally understood all the problems Hermogenes was having.

“Diego’s father would come to my house,” Hermogenes says. “‘Teacher, are you still angry with Diego?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘Oh, thank God, I want to renew the scholarship and grant today.’ One time we lost 2-0, the only time I can remember us falling short when he was with us, and it was because Diego threw a tantrum. His father came to apologise, and I said it was Diego that needed to.

“Eventually he did come, head down, sulking. I used to say, ‘Never more’. Even after games he was always agitated. He was giving me such a hard time, I was always sending him home and I’m a patient guy. But what a player, and that anger was key to that.”

Hermogenes points into the distance, saying: “He would dribble from here to there. He was an individual; he wasn’t a player to pass and he was made to score goals. [At] 8-0, 9-0, there was no more emotion. We’d win everything. It was so easy for him. He pissed me off so much, though, and then gave me just happiness. It was complex. Too many goals, but damn hard work. Thankfully that’s not my problem anymore, that’s [Chelsea manager] Antonio Conte’s problem now. But I’m so proud of him. I really, really am.”

Costa’s first cousin, Robson, remembers a player who loved a tussle. “He always liked to play the older ones, face the bigger guys,” he says. “It was a test of his toughness, and even as a kid he wouldn’t back down. He didn’t care if the opponent was taller and stronger—he had to win. Jair and him couldn’t play on the same team because they were the same. They wouldn’t pass the ball and that would lead to fights. But if he lost he would literally sit down on the ground and start crying out of anger and disappointment.”

But there was another side to Diego—one that remains out of sight to the paying public to this day. Robson had a video player and Diego developed a passion for horror movies—to the extent he wanted to scare people himself. The Blair Witch Project was a particular inspiration. “He’d hide behind trees and jump out at people. Slowly it went further,” he says.

On one occasion, Costa tied a line between two trees and had a scary doll slide along it on a pulley. He’d wait until nightfall, when locals were walking home from church and then he’d let loose. “He was always playing with that angry face, but everyone loved him because away from it, he’s a really funny guy,” says Robson.

Then came the full stop to end the first chapter. “His father told him to go to Sao Paulo to work with his uncle Edson,” says Flavio. “If you’re going, he’s more mental about football than Diego.”

From Lagarto to Sao Paulo is roughly 1,400 miles. From the Costa house to Rua 25 de Marco might as well be a million more. In the world’s 12th-biggest city, it doesn’t get much crazier than this. The street is filled with stalls and the noise of people shouting—willing you to buy anything and everything.

It’s overwhelming, claustrophobic and exhausting.

Edson works in a high-rise building known as Galeria Paje. Floor after floor of manic consumerism. He’s on the sixth story, beside a lift used for carting cardboard boxes of all sorts up and down. It was here Diego Costa came, aged 14, on his father’s instructions.

Costa’s mother says he was sent there to “work in a shop.” But things would take a very different turn.

Now 41, Edson started working here, aged 15. He’d get on a bus, go on the 12-hour journey to the Paraguayan border, load up on cheap products and come straight back. Three times a week he’d do it, but gradually he started saving money and buying his own merchandise on the side. Eventually he became his own boss. As he talks, sweat races down his face, with the constant ringing phones as a soundtrack.

Nowadays business with Paraguay is done over WhatsApp, and there is nothing to be done until the goods arrive. But when Costa came, it was still an old-school operation.

“Diego went to Paraguay with me a few times,” Edson says. “He worked a little bit here, but his thing was football. But in Brazil there’s a lot of disillusionment as well, as it’s not an easy thing to be professional. Go anywhere in the world, but we still have the best players, amazing guys playing on streets, in fields—and there are no opportunities. So he never had this idea he’d be a professional.”

Edson says Diego was arguing with his mother a lot at home. That was what prompted his move. As a former footballer who turned down professional contracts in Lagarto and with Portuguesa in Sao Paulo (because his wife was pregnant and he opted for security), he instantly knew Diego was special.

“If I tell you, you’ll tell me that I’m lying, that I’m making it up,” he says. And so begins his remarkable story.

Back in the 1990s, Galeria Paje was renowned for selling anything and everything. “A VCR with a brick inside it, this kind of thing,” he says. Business relationships were plentiful, and along the way Edson got to know a client who was involved in football. He told him Costa was a talented young player and coming to live in Sao Paolo.

“So Diego comes and the guy involved in football, I can’t even remember his name, but he calls my friend and wanted to meet,” he says. “Diego was in my house, was getting ready to go to Paraguay and I said, ‘Come here.’ Typical Diego, in a huff, he said no. So I took the guy to the central market for a beer.”

Three hours later the tall, slim figure of a teenaged Costa arrived. “You play volleyball or something?” Edson’s business contact asked Costa. “No, I score goals,” Costa retorted. “I like this kid,” said the man.


Costa (top row, fourth from left) pictured in his junior playing days | Ewan MacKenna

“We knew nothing about this guy, his connections, anything about him,” Edson continues. “A wing and a prayer. The guy called a friend in Santo Amaro to take Diego for a trial on the Tuesday and he left. That Tuesday, Diego was really quiet in the car and he said, ‘I’m not going, I didn’t take anything.’

“‘Are you crazy,’ I thought. It had been arranged. We should have been there at 10 and we were just leaving at 10. I’d to run across the street and get him a pair of boots. We were an hour late and he’d no other gear, he was sulking, and the guy running the trial asked him where was his stuff.”

The man disappeared into a room and came back with a pair of shorts for Diego. Costa was big and the shorts was unflatteringly tight, but they’d have to do. “That was it,” beams Edson, who had already written off the chances of anything good happening. “I was with a friend and we went to a bar—didn’t even watch the match. It was all done in my mind. A few minutes later the guy came over: ‘Jesus Christ, I’m taking him out of there.’

“‘That bad?’ I asked. ‘No, three times he got the ball and he’s gotten a hat-trick.’ We burst out laughing. By Thursday he was at the Copa Coca-Cola in Minas Gerais [the neighbouring state]. Suddenly everyone started calling me. Cruzeiro, Sao Paulo, Palmeiras—I was like an agent. That was my biggest mistake: His father could give me the rights, but I never asked.” It’s his great regret.


A young Costa’s playing ID from his time in Lagarto | Ewan MacKenna

As luck would have it, Costa caught the eye of scout Armando Silva, who works for superagent Jorge Mendes. Silva was there to watch another player entirely and only happened upon Costa by chance. “When I saw Diego, I said I want to take you to Portugal to make a career; you could see at 16 he was spectacular,” Silva has since said.

The next day Silva was in Lagarto getting Costa’s father to sign him over. Costa’s mother didn’t want her son to go, telling him he didn’t know where he was off to or who the people were that were taking him there. Costa said he’d be going with his mother’s consent or not.

“I went with him for 20 days to Braga,” says Costa’s father. “He was young and wanted to give up. But Silva treated him as a son. ‘What can I do? What can I bring: more duvets, more blankets? I know it is hard, but we can get psychological help, whatever.’ He couldn’t do enough to make him stay.”

Josileide adds: “Diego would never complain; everything would be OK, even if it wasn’t. He’d never let me get worried, but we knew he hated it. Even later we’d see a game on TV and he’d be hurt and we knew well, but he’d say it’s nothing serious—it’s fine. It was always like that with him.”


A young Costa watches a game alongside his aunt | Ewan MacKenna

Costa’s uncle, Edson, recalls: “I lost the contact after he went to Europe. It happened so fast. He changed his family’s life, though, if you knew how they were before. What I miss most is having more time with him. It pisses me off that people who never did anything for him are looking for his attention and more, but I guess that always happens. Me, I don’t have the time to go to his games sadly. Work is manic here; how can I leave all of this.

“But the story of Diego is one you cannot explain. He won the lottery and he doesn’t even know it yet. Why? Because he never played anywhere else as an adult, nothing professionally. Not here in Sao Paulo, not there in Lagarto, nowhere. And he gets to go—it was like a star saying you were born for that. It was destiny, I guess. But now I know people look at him this way and that, they see the angry personality. But away from the games, I’d tell them that really, he’s just like a little girl.”

When Flavio had heart issues and a minor stroke a few years back, Costa took over the running of the football school with one strict understanding—they would need to charge the kids to attend.

You’d never guess Flavio’s health problems today, given he’s outside the office of Lagarto football club plastering and painting. Inside, Robson is now the director of the school and Costa’s brother Jair has taken over as club president. “He (Costa) never forgot this place; he cares too much,” says Robson.

Costa’s hairdresser, Jairo, has known him since childhood and tried out many a new style on his friend. “Sixteen years I’ve been cutting his hair,” Jairo says. “He is wild. He’d come down the path on a motorbike and throw it down and race in. He was always crazy. A lunatic. But a lovable lunatic. Now everyone comes here when he’s getting a haircut; they all come to see him and he sits talking away. He’s the same.”

Jairo has a television in his salon to watch Costa play on—with the four-hour time difference, he’s often at work when Chelsea are in action.

Costa’s father likes to go to the farm in his Chelsea shirt and have a quiet cigarette while taking in a game. During the World Cup, beside the pitch where Costa once hoofed the ball away, there was a cinema screen erected, with hot dogs and popcorn for kids. It was briefly a Spanish colony.

That brings us to the issue of why Costa chose Spain over his native Brazil.

“That’s because Felipao [Brazil national team manager Luiz Felipe Scolari] just gave him 10 minutes, so of course he was pissed off,” says his father, who heard the chants of “traitor” firsthand in Salvador, Brazil, as Spain took on the Netherlands during the 2014 World Cup. “Those few minutes, that wasn’t enough to show his ability, so I don’t blame him. You appreciate who appreciates you, and Spain gave him everything. The Brazil media here don’t appreciate him; they never gave him any value.”

Nobody cares about Costa’s national allegiance in these parts. Spain? Brazil? Costa is Lagartense first. In the town center, a large screen goes up for his biggest games. A crowd comes to cheer on their most famous son. Rusel Barroso, the university professor, says Costa likes to attend the annual festival summer of bonfires and fireworks—usually buying some of the latter himself and setting them off, just as he did as a child. This year it will be held on June 29. Costa is expected to be there.

Costa takes his responsibility to his old home seriously. They say Largarto Football Club received around $350,000 from Costa’s transfer from Atletico to Chelsea. Since Costa took over running it, the broken water pump has been fixed and the grass is growing again. The team has returned home, and preparations are underway to carry out repair work on the stands.

As for the soccer school, Costa is in negotiations with the council to buy the land and build his own complex. Flavio points to the public dressing rooms and says even the toilets have been stolen. The guy out back washing jerseys tells me there are 300 kids to look after—and that mud and white shirts are not the best match. Flavio takes me through a room of torn sleeping bags for away trips and then into the grimy kitchen. Thieves have even crawled through the roof to steal the gas bottles that heat the stove.

Thoughts return to the man who has already given back so much.

“He was rude with me; he was like a wild horse,” Flavio says of Costa. “An extremely strong personality. But as much as Diego is rude, he is nice. His actions show that always. He helps here; he’s been paying all the bills. Adidas signed a contract with us six or seven years ago. And there are a lot of families that cannot afford food. The kids play here, and each month he buys a lot of food baskets and they all come here and take them home. You never hear about that side of Diego.”

Costa’s generosity has allowed Flavio to focus on partnerships with local universities in areas like medicine, dentistry, psychology and education—giving the children a pathway to a better future.


A note from Costa on a signed shirt he sent Flavio reads, “For my coach Flavinho, a hug from the student Diego” | Ewan MacKenna

“He gives loads of donations,” Costa’s mother says, adding that he refuses to put his name on them. “Diego doesn’t want to make a big deal. The people I give them to keep asking ‘Is it a politician?’ and I tell them just pray for whoever sent them.

“It does make me think how far away he is, though. I spent 30 days in London, and he misses home and doesn’t like it there. But Diego respects his career and his job. Of course he prefers the way it is here, but he has respect. People can say what they like about him, but look at all he has done.”

There are endless stories doing the rounds about Diego Costa. Some would have him as a drunk, a villain and man of violence. But maybe now you get him.

Sometimes to be misunderstood is to be great. And to be great is to be misunderstood.


By EWAN MACKENNA for Bleacher Report

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