The decision by Madrid’s leading sports newspaper to put Diego Costa on the cover of its world cup preview says a lot about the state of the Spanish national team.
Instead of one of the legends who have manned La Roja’s midfield for the past decade and brought home unprecedented international silverware, Marca chose to shine the spotlight on Costa, a striker who has made only one appearance with the Spanish team and who is sure to be the most hated man in Brazil once the World Cup kicks off.
And that’s entirely appropriate.
If Spain is to have any chance of defending its crown and becoming the first European team to win the World Cup on South American soil, Costa is going to have to play out of his mind from the moment the first whistle blows against the Netherlands on June 13.
While the core of Spain’s midfield from the Euro-winning sides of 2008 and ’12 and the World Cup champions in 2014, the relentless march of time has begun to catch up with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Co. The tiki-taka possession game Spain used to dominate much of the past decade has appeared vulnerable in the past year, most recently being exposed by the more direct attacking style of Brazil in the hosts’ 3-0 Confederations Cup final win last year.
Enter Costa. The Atletico Madrid — potentially Chelsea by the time festivities get under way on June 12 — forward gives the Spaniards the attacking focal point they have lacked since Fernando Torres forgot how to score.
"Against Brazil last summer, they needed to find a way to get out of their own half and they can add that to their play now with Costa," said Everton manager Roberto Martinez, speaking to the Guardian.
"I do believe the weather conditions and the South American way of playing means they will need more of an unknown quantity. Costa brings that."
Only 18 months ago, few would have bet on Costa being one of the figures on whom a nation’s World Cup dreams hinged. Even fewer would have bet that nation would be Spain.
Costa was born in Brazil, but has played his entire career in Europe. As he built his reputation in both Spain and Portugal, the 25-year-old was largely ignored by the Brazilian national team. There were appearances in friendly matches against Italy and Russia, but Costa became a citizen of Spain last summer and, after being left off of manager Felipe Scolari’s Confederations Cup team, declared his intention to lead the Spanish line.
Needless to say, he instantly became public enemy No. 1 in Brazil.
"He is turning his back on a dream of millions, to represent our national team, the five-times champions in a World Cup in Brazil," Scolari said when Costa announced his intention of playing for Spain.
It’s understandable why Scolari would be so choked at losing Costa’s services.
For Atletico this season, Costa finished as La Liga’s third-top scorer behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. His 27 goals helped lead Atletico to its first Spanish league title since 1992, and he also pitched in with eight goals in the Champions League, where Atletico came up agonizingly short of being crowned European champions with a late-late loss to local rivals Real Madrid.
Costa’s speed, vision, fearlessness and ability to pick out a run were enough to convince Jose Mourinho that he could be the man to fill the gaping hole where the dopey mane of blonde hair that used to be Fernando Torres slotted in on Chelsea’s forward line this past season.
As of press-time, Costa was on the verge of completing a $53.8-million US transfer to the London giants.
The 2013-14 season was, admittedly, something of a breakthrough for Costa. While he had admirably backed up Colombian goal poacher Radamel Falcao at Atletico, the most he had ever scored in a La Liga season before the past year’s magic was 10 goals, which he managed in12-13 with Atletico and ’11-12 with Rayo Vallecano.
Simply put, he hadn’t done enough to make Scolari’s decision to leave him out of last summer’s Confederation Cup squad seem like any sort of egregious error. There’s a lot of attacking talent in Brazil, and Costa’s workmanlike numbers didn’t stand out.
That’s changed, though, and even Scolari’s fury about Costa’s defection seems to have evolved into something bordering on admiration.
"I was going to summon him for the World Cup," Scolari said. "I’d thought about playing him up front to run and smash through. He’s a powerful beast. He’s strong as a bull."
Between the transfer and the international custody battle between Spain and Brazil, Costa has no doubt become accustomed to the spotlight. But the attention in Brazil, where he is treated like a pantomime villain, will be unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
He won’t touch the ball without hearing a chorus of boos echoing down from the rafters, and will likely get an earful from fans wherever he travels.
Fortunately, any description of Costa includes words such as "combative" and "aggressive." This is a striker who likes a challenge, and if Spain is going to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cups, you can be sure it won’t hurt to have a striker with a chip on his shoulder.
After all, while the Spanish team from 2010 is rightly remembered fondly, it’s not as if it was flush with goals. Every team from the last-16 to the final was downed by a 1-0 scoreline that year.
Similarly, this year’s Atletico team wasn’t high on scoring — although it definitely wasn’t high on possession the way that Spain team was — but dethroned Barcelona, the club world’s great tiki-taka practitioners, by keeping scorelines low and relying on Costa to bulldoze his way through defences when called upon.
If he can do the same against the likes of Argentina and Brazil, Spain’s golden generation may just have the chance to make history together one final time.
SOUTH AMERICAN SPELL?
So Spain won the World Cup four years ago and is the two-time reigning European champion, but isn’t a favourite to win the World Cup?
Chalk that up to one of the most commonly repeated so-called-facts about world soccer: European teams can’t win in South America.
Whether there’s any truth in it is up for debate. After all, it used to be that European teams couldn’t win the World Cup anywhere outside of their own continent. Then Spain went to South Africa and brought the trophy home in 2010 and, suddenly, it’s only South America we’re talking about.
Is there any reason to take it seriously? Well, yes … kind of.
The World Cup has been held four times in South America, and a South American team has won each and every one. Only two European teams have even made it to a final in South America. That would be Czechoslovakia, which lost to Brazil in the 1962 final in Santiago, Chile, and the Netherlands, which lost to Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1978.
Four tournaments is too small a sample size to draw any conclusions about why it’s happened, although common explanations include the grass being a little bit longer in South America, the crowds being more intense and the weather.