John Terry has a well-worn technique for getting his message across. You see it whenever the Chelsea captain takes to the pitch, but it always seems to stand out more in the sanitised surrounds of the Champions League than in the hurly-burly of domestic competition.
Terry is one of those central defenders who like to introduce themselves to a striker early on. It does not necessarily take the form of a reducer. He is cleverer, subtler than that — a shoulder charge, or a collision of chests, something like that, followed by an icy, wordless stare. It is designed as a direct challenge. It is that old animal trick of making himself appear larger, the equivalent of rearing up on his hind legs. It is a display and a test of strength.
Different forwards respond in different ways. Most, of course, are intimidated. Some sidle out of his way for the rest of the game. Fernando Torres, back when he was a force to be reckoned with, found it inspiring. At Liverpool, he took particular pleasure in scoring against Chelsea because he disliked Terry, as an opponent, so much.
The most eye-catching response to Terry’s challenge, though, came last April, in that tense first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal with Atletico Madrid. A few minutes in, Terry initiated a physical confrontation with his direct opponent. He stared his challenger down. Diego Costa stared right back. He walked toward the Chelsea captain and jutted his chest out, bumping him out of the way.
That moment was not one of Costa’s more violent. It was not, like his stamps on Emre Can and Martin Skrtel against Liverpool on Tuesday night, the first of which has led to an FA charge, the sort of thing to attract the attention of football’s hawk-eyed disciplinary authorities. It was not, like his old trick of spitting into his glove and rubbing it into someone’s face, pushing the boundaries of hygiene.
By the standards of the games he played growing up, it was nothing, too. Costa, it is now relatively well-known, never had what might be described as a formal footballing education. He played on the streets in his home-town of Lagarto, in the Brazilian state of Sergipe, and was only brought into an organised side when he moved to Sao Paulo as a 16-year-old.
The street-fighting instincts never left him. Those who played alongside him in Lagarto remember that he had a temper, a physical style, the sort you need to thrive in those informal scratch games where your opponent might be a lot bigger than you and there are no ephemeral luxuries like rules. Playing for a team called Barcelona Esportiva Capella in Brazil’s concrete jungle, Costa was once banned for four months for attacking an opponent and then going for a referee.
That moment with Terry, though, spoke volumes. It said, essentially, that Costa is not someone who can be intimidated. He has seen far bigger and he has seen far tougher and he is not afraid of you. It said all you need to know about where he has come from and who he is.
They have words for this sort of thing in South America. Spanish speakers would describe it as picardia, a kind of spicy cunning, mixed with a little garra, which literally means claw but has the sense of fighting spirit. In Brazil, the word is jeitinho, the ability to get what you want by circumventing normal social conventions. There is a greater moral ambivalence in that part of the world about such offences in football than there is in puritanical, outrage-addicted England.
None of this, of course, excuses stamping on another player. Stamping is universally accepted as A Bad Thing, even if it can be hard to be certain if there is ever quite so much intent as we believe there to be; all of this happens in the blink of an eye, and often it is only with the benefit of a slow-motion replay that we are able to decree that a player meant to commit the offence.
But what Costa’s background does is offer some explanation for why he is like he is — and like he will continue to be, with or without Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s encouragement. It also presents us, as fans, with a question. Would we not all want a player like that in our team? Is having a player who will do anything to win, even indulge in the darkest of the dark arts, not worth the occasional few match ban?
That is phrased, deliberately, as a question, because it is conceivable that, for you, the answer may be no. It may be that you would rather your team won fairly, or not at all, and if that is the case, you deserve to be praised to the skies for your basic decency. It may be that you are appalled by Costa and would recoil if your side signed someone like him.
Or maybe not. Most teams, even English teams, have a player like that in their history, one who is revered for their mastery of the game’s less beautiful aspects. Ron Harris at Chelsea. Norman Hunter at Leeds. Nobby Stiles at Manchester United. Graeme Souness — and, indeed, Luis Suarez — at Liverpool. Duncan Ferguson at Everton. Your team has one. And even if you are not old enough to remember, you will have been schooled by those who gave you your football addiction and your affiliation to regard them as heroes.
That is the problem when discussing Costa. Everything becomes tinged by allegiance. If he is against you, you see him as a standard-bearer for all that is wrong with the game. You enjoy the thin air on your high horse. If he is with you, the line becomes more blurred. What seemed previously to be going too far is now simply being fully committed to the cause. This makes it very hard to assess him in a cool-headed, logical way.
There are, ultimately, only two things of which we can be certain. The first is that Costa is up for a fight. He will do whatever he can and whatever he must to win. And the second is that, when that fight comes, it is probably better to have Costa on your side.
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