He doesn’t often smile, but when he does it reminds me of the Grinch, just as the moment the plan to steal Christmas had internally hatched. A face only a mother could love with a five o’clock shadow that never fades, Diego Costa is just an eyebrow scar away from becoming the perfect Disney villain. Already the antagonist to his native Brazil, the Spanish international was, at first, graciously accepted by the inhabitants of his adopted Iberian home, seen as a potentially devastating new member of Spanish national side. Yet an underwhelming, unfruitful genesis to his La Roja career puts his place in Spain’s selección for the 2016 European Championships in jeopardy.
Was it a trying choice for Diego Costa to choose to Spain over his true homeland? Some will say no. The Spanish national team had made adequate competition extinct by some margin from 2008 to 2012 on the international stage, winning back-to-back Euro tournaments and the country’s first ever World Cup sandwiched in-between. By the Barcelona-borrowed instruction of two coaches, the now late Luis Aragonés and his successor Vincente Del Bosque, Spain’s golden era not only inhaled three successive trophies, but they did it their way. A trademark chokehold of possession was able to lure oppositions into a perpetual state of tiresome ball-chasing. Then, at what seemed like will, when the gaps were eventually manufactured, the collective interchanging of Spain’s intricate attackers would penetrate the wound with the precision of a surgeon. Who could say no to that?
Sure, the then upcoming World Cup in Brazil, which eventually Costa played in for Spain, might have been a weight against the ultimate decision to choose La Roja on the pathos side of the argument. But the former Atlético de Madrid striker is about as cuddly as cactus. Sweet memories of his childhood homeland suppressed, Costa chose the team he thought would win, albeit incorrectly.
So why is Diego Costa, a proven goleador, a La Liga winner failing to produce the goods for the national team? Over time, as the sport naturally created an antidote to Spain’s potent tiki-taka epidemic and Del Bosque’s tactics were rooted to the traces of success, wouldn’t the broad target of Costa provide a strategical plan B for his coach? Couldn’t Spain’s newest weapon spearhead a team who had been frequently lining up without a recognized striker? Wasn’t Diego Costa the mercenary link that would help the country’s ball-hoarding obsession evolve into a remastered version of themselves?
Or had Spain become the old dog you couldn’t teach new tricks?
The 2013 Confederations Cup final to which Brazil manhandled Spain 3-0 sounded the alarm for reform. Despite making two appearances for Brazil in 2013, Costa’s request to switch national teams had finally gone through later that autumn and the Brazilian-born Spaniard was called up by Del Bosque in March of the next year in order to fast-track the player into the blueprint for the quickly approaching World Cup. Nevertheless, Spain, and by extension their new striker, met a nightmare doom exit in the group stage in Brazil. Diego Costa failed to score and was whistled by the attending Brazilians at every match.
Since the catastrophe at the mundial, Costa has been capped six more times for the national team, scoring only once - the third goal in a 4-0 win against Luxembourg more than 14 months ago. Now a Premier League champion at Chelsea, things still haven’t clicked for the forward in the international realm.
Diego Costa represented a radical change in a time when progress was required. He was, and in many cases still is, a square peg in a round hole with La Roja. The fact that Spain desired a squarer hole than what they were used to wasn’t going to be solved by forcing a player into a team that didn’t fit. The signs should have been obvious, but the temptation of Costa’s potential impact was too much to resist. If he could have replicated his club form for Del Bosque, the pairing would have been sumptuous. But as we now know, he didn’t and still hasn’t. For once, the Spanish weren’t patient enough.
Diego Costa doesn’t in any way resemble the players that surround him in the national team. In a generation that has defined themselves by creating space where there isn’t any, Costa is the opposite. For the black belt in provocation, contact with defenders is his reference point. Bumping, jostling, and fighting off center backs are all ways in which he makes his presence known. Living on the shoulders (and at times, elbows) of a back line is how he threatens to exploit spaces in behind. It’s what he’s good at. And for those reasons Diego Costa is what many teams desire in terms of attacking qualities. He’s a target, an ace in the hole, an X-factor that can leave crowds scratching the back of their heads and asking ‘how did he do that?’ But at the clubs where he’s seen success, Chelsea and Atlético de Madrid, neither have been ultra-possessive tinkerers. Costa doesn’t mix with the current crop of those in the Spanish national team because possession has never been his style; he needs service. The same goes to say for the style of the managers that have gotten the most out of Costa – Diego Simeone and Jose Mourinho.
In the meantime, the national team has been unearthing and test driving other attacking personnel – Álvaro Morata, Paco Alcácer, and Nolito among others to add to an already seasoned pool of established internationals. Ominously, there won’t be room for everyone come June.
In time, as the Spanish national team cut the chord with the specter of their most successful epoch, a player of Diego Costa’s make will have more of an impact. But for now, at the pace La Roja is transitioning, the question remains: Is Diego Costa a justified selection for Vincente Del Bosque’s 2016 European Championship roster?