Illustration by Federico Manasse. View more of his great work here
“YOU EITHER DIE A HERO or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Harvey Dent’s renowned one-liner from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight has often been known to stand for the very fact that life turns on a dime. It is the pivotal decisions we make in life that end up defining how we will be judged by people around us, so much so that everything we do, either good or bad, will be perceived from exactly the bracket that we have been put in already. It will all boil down to that one massive decision we make; the decision that alters our reputation forever and firmly shapes it in the sands of time.
There are few men in this world to whom the quote wouldn’t apply to some degree, but that is the steadfast nature of reputation. No matter what they do, their ill standing always seems to pull them down from a pedestal. One of them is Diego Costa, the man who will forever go down as a villain in the most popular football league in the world, despite having achieved so much.
As his journey in the Premier League draws to a rather awkward yet much-expected conclusion, it pains very few to see him go. Even Chelsea fans are divided about whether he should fall under the ‘very few’ category or not. It has been a rollercoaster ride full of crests that helped the club win two Premier League titles and troughs that very often let the club down. It has been full of action and memorable moments. Be they good ones or bad ones, they are moments nonetheless.
The moment Costa set foot onto the pitch in England, there seemed to be a mean streak about him, something the Premier League had not seen before, not even in the likes of Alan Shearer or Wayne Rooney. While the Spaniard would score just as prolifically as the above throughout his stay at Stamford Bridge, that mean streak separated him from the rest. For fans that had watched him play in La Liga for Atlético Madrid, there was little doubt about how he would go about his business.
If there was anything in the Chelsea side that interested the onlookers more than their charge to the title, Nemanja Matiċ’s contributions and Cesc Fàbregas’ magical performances, then it was Costa’s unorthodox approach to the game. Opposition defenders hated him for being an intense irritation throughout the game. When things didn’t go his way, he made sure that they did, by hook or by crook. And the fact that it worked made him the perfect pantomime villain for the English audience.
They had hardly seen anything like it before. It’s obvious that nothing came close to providing the same ecstasy for Chelsea fans than a Costa goal. For rival fans, though, the amount of hate and abhorrence that emanated from every unorthodox thing that the forward did on the pitch was enough for them to abuse the combustible Spaniard. No matter how many times he scored or how many games he single-handedly won for the Blues, he could never win over the general fans of the Premier League, largely because he was never their type.
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He would kick the defenders in their heels as he bullied, harassed and wound them up into making an error. It was his way of making something happen out of nothing in a world where the technical ability or pace of footballers is lauded for doing the same.
His unwillingness to give in and the uncanny tendency to resort to whichever way possible to achieve his aim proved to be unique. He could cross any limits to come close to winning and putting one over the opposition, be it stamping on Emre Can in a League Cup tie or grabbing Pablo Zabaleta by the throat in the Premier League.
There has hardly been anything special about the man, apart from the innate finishing skills and eye for goal, but the fire and passion to do anything in his will to win make him special. It was his passion that caught the eyes of Chelsea fans, especially the hardcore ones. They could attach strings to their ‘proper centre-forward’, associating their passion to win with that of his.
Costa’s tally of 20 goals played an ever-important role in handing José Mourinho’s men the title in the 2014/15 campaign, as he didn’t just act as the proper Mourinho-esque centre-forward, but seemed like an upgrade on one. Quite often, it seemed as if Costa was Mourinho’s pawn on the pitch; his behavioral replica. He would pull off everything in his playbook to win a game, a ploy Mourinho has used to make a name for himself in football. Strikers who the Portuguese has previously worked with and won titles with – the likes of Didier Drogba, Karim Benzema and Diego Milito – were undoubtedly top-drawer goalscorers, but Mourinho saw a bit of himself in the man from Segripe.
But consequences can be lethal if things go wrong between people with similar approaches. Bearing the brunt of the other backfired and brought about the inception of the gradual severing of Costa’s love for Chelsea. So much so that after not being brought on despite being told to warm up in a Premier League game against title rivals Tottenham, Costa threw a bib in Mourinho’s direction when the floundering Blues boss was sitting on his seat pitchside. It didn’t hit him but proved to be a sign of things to come, with rumours already fuelling Costa’s dissatisfaction with the club.
On the pitch, though, despite his inability to adapt to the English culture and the language, Costa always stepped up to the plate and scored. His tendency to win games in whichever way possible made up for a lack of knowledge in spoken English to make sure that the Blues fans could still associate themselves with him. As things went downhill for Chelsea and Mourinho, the former Real Madrid boss lost trust in his players and the relationship that had won them the title broke down. Costa did score 12 times in the Blues’ disastrous 2015/16 campaign, but his discontent was made clear by the media – and it seemed to be brewing.
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In came Antonio Conte, a man known to be a passionate practitioner of winning games the pragmatic way. The Italian has always been known to be a man who shows no hesitation in being vocal and vociferous when things for his side don’t go his way; a man who hates losing, and is loved by many for showing a clear passion to win. The former Bari and Juventus boss is an in-your-face character, who will never back away from being direct. While these are qualities that made Costa stay, the love didn’t last long. Again, the congruence backfired.
It did start very well, though, as Costa scored in comeback wins over West Ham and Watford in the opening two games of the season. That was enough to win back the love of those Chelsea fans who had doubted his commitment to play for the club and win games. On top of that, his fun-loving attitude off the pitch has always made his teammates like him for what he is.
It was in January that things took a wrong turn. Costa had his head turned by Chinese moneybags Tianjin Quanjian and in a training ground bust-up with Conte, if reports are to be believed, the Italian shouted, “Go to China.” A row with an assistant coach pertaining to an injury that Costa was carrying didn’t make matters easy. It was certainly the most improper time for something like this to happen, but Costa was convinced into staying until the end of the season; it paid dividends, as the Blues won their second title in three seasons, pipping Spurs in the process.
The well-documented state of affairs prior to his exit would be enough to suggest that it probably wasn’t the love for Chelsea that had died, but issue around the club and the country that had made him feel detached. If you were to ask the striker to play for Chelsea, he would probably do so once again with the same passion, if only you could remove the external, bothersome factors. These have made it impossible for him to carry on at a club – and in a league – where he won’t be regarded as a legend because of his reputation for doing things the dirty way, or what many speak of as the ‘wrong’ way.
He was hated for resorting to the dark arts, and he loved being hated. But football fans often fail to realise that as humans, we refuse to change ourselves very often. Rather, we are resistant to change, largely because of the very fact that being ourselves has made us what we are today. And there’s no point in changing if it has catapulted one onto the list of the most feared strikers in Europe. He’s a man worth hating by the haters, but a player who would be a shadow of himself if he didn’t have his signature mean streak.
As the curtains come down on Diego Costa’s stay in England, he may not be remembered for being the best ever, but will almost certainly be remembered as being the most paradoxical. What is crystal clear is that the Premier League would have to do well to find a new villain to hate with so much talent.