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Tim Vickery Column: Can Diego Costa's Spanish switch be justified?

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During Atletico Madrid’s recent visit to Valencia, the home fans were quick to remind Diego Costa that he is not really Spanish.

Five months from now an entire nation might be prepared to make the same point, only with added aggression.  Because there is an element to the Diego Costa story that, during the 2014 World Cup, could make for a highly charged relationship between the Atletico Madrid striker and the home fans.

There is nothing new about Brazilians representing other national teams. Historically, it has happened in two different situations.

One is in the pre-globalised age. It is only comparatively recently – the 1986 World Cup was an important mark in this process – that Brazil selected players who were based outside the country.  Prior to that, a move to Europe, or even to Argentina, was sufficient to send a player into self-imposed exile from the selecao.  So why not play for the adopted country?  A few took this route – perhaps the most high profile case is that of Mazzola, a centre forward in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup squad, who later (under his real name of Altafini) played for Italy – even appearing in the next World Cup four years later.

That type of situation – playing full competitive matches for two different nations – can no longer happen today.  But in today’s global village, with so many Brazilians based abroad, it is not uncommon for them to throw in their lot with the likes of Tunisia, or Togo, Japan, Mexico, Croatia, Poland, Germany, Spain or Portugal.  Typically, these are players who judge that they have no chance of representing the land of their birth.  Turning out for their adopted country is the best they can get.

There has often been a sense of pride in Brazil about these cases. There is something to celebrate about the fact that the country’s cast offs are good enough to play for another nation.  There will probably be a few examples of these naturalised players on duty in the World Cup.  The crowd might single them out for special treatment if they happen to be playing against Brazil.  Otherwise, however, their exploits are unlikely to generate any hostility.

But the same is not necessarily true about Diego Costa.  Because this is a player who could be playing for Brazil – indeed was playing for Brazil as recently as last March, and would certainly have been called up for some of the recent friendlies played by Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side.  Instead, though, he has decided to play for Spain – not as a consolation prize, but as a first preference.  It is a bold choice, especially bearing in mind the location of the coming World Cup.

What might be behind his decision?

The obvious trigger was the way he was treated by Brazil less than a year ago.  Called up for friendlies against Italy and Russia, he was given a few minutes off the bench in both games and then, with no real opportunity to show what he could do, he was ignored for the Confederations Cup squad.  His stock rose not only with his own strong start to the Spanish season, but also as a result of the injury to Fred, Brazil’s first choice centre forward.  Suddenly Scolari wanted another look at Diego Costa.  But for the striker it was a case of bitten once, not available the second time.

But on a more profound level, perhaps Diego Costa had been dwelling on his own identity.  I have to confess that it took me a while to come to this conclusion.  My instant reaction had been that the player was Brazilian, and that any attempt to pass himself off as Spanish was false and contrived.  Thinking further, I decided that I had been seeing things too much from my own perspective, and not trying hard enough to step into the shoes of Diego Costa.  I shall explain.

An old friend of mine from the UK explains his twitter profile as follows; “my views are the result of years of experience and a free university education.”  My generation (born in 1965) were, in many cases, the first to get anywhere near a college – and it was all based on state provision;  cheap council housing, free health, free education (for those like me, of a modest background, all the way to university).  I can make many criticisms of my own country – not least that much of this state provision is being dismantled.  But I cannot deny that my country made an investment in me.  After 20 years in Brazil there is no way that I could think of myself as Brazilian.

This is the kind of thinking which, initially, I was wrongly attributing to Diego Costa as well.  For, frankly, he has no reason to feel the same.  He is from the small town of Lagarto in Sergipe.  It is a long way from my adopted city of Rio de Janeiro and I have no first hand knowledge of the place.  But one imagines a childhood in precarious conditions – especially (he was born in 1988) in the days of hyper-inflation and before the introduction of the ‘bolsa familia’ benefit scheme.

Now, well adapted to his new country and even with a Spanish daughter, Diego Costa would rather look forwards.  It is a position I have come to respect.  But, in the heat of the World Cup, it is far from clear that many of the home fans will show the same tolerance – especially as reigning champions Spain are one of Brazil’s main rivals for the title, and the two teams could meet as early as the second round.

Diego Costa recognises that his occasional lack of emotional control is a relic of the flaws in his upbringing.  And his temperament will really be put to the test in the World Cup.  He might be wearing the red shirt of Spain, but, especially if he plays against the hosts, plenty of ‘la Furia’ will be directed against him.


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