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Saturday December 15 2012
The two sides of Diego Costa

Richard Martin analyses the Brazilian forward's controversial career so far in Spain.

'An uncontrollable character', 'an anarchic striker', someone ‘who can't control himself when things get heated', and a player who 'understands football as a dogfight’.

These are just some of the many things that have been said about Diego Costa throughout his career. The 24-year-old Atletico Madrid forward has had to persevere and fight - often literally - in order to get to the top, but now few followers of Spanish football will be unaware of him, especially after the fortnight he has had.

It began with the Brazilian tussling with most of the Real Madrid team during the Madrid derby, clashing with Xabi Alonso, Pepe and most notably Sergio Ramos. With the spotlight on him, he proceeded to get him sent off in Atletico’s next game, headbutting Viktoria Plzen player David Limbersky in an incident which had nothing to do with him.

But in the last week only good things have been said about Costa. He opened the scoring and played a key part in Atletico's demolition of Deportivo last Sunday, proving an ideal partner for Radamel Falcao, and was then the stand-out performer against Getafe in the Copa del Rey, and grabbed two goals and an assist.

With the decline of Adrian, Costa has become Atleti's first-choice forward to play behind Falcao, and developed into a player few defenders would want to face, due to his build, strength, ability in the air and aggression. 

The latter part of Costa's game cannot be denied, but it is worth looking into why he is one of the game's more fiery characters. He grew up in Lagarto, a Brazilian city he says had no sports facilities, nor pitches with any grass, meaning his youth was spent playing street football. While Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta got their football education with the finest coaches and facilities within Barcelona's youth academy, Costa admits "the street was my school".

"On the pitch I fought with everyone, I couldn't control myself. I insulted everyone, I had no respect for the opposition, I thought I had to kill them,” he has said.

“Boys who grew up playing in academies are taught to control themselves and respect others, but no-one ever told me otherwise, I didn't have a school to teach me this. I was used to seeing players elbowing each other in the face and thought it was the norm."

Costa moved to Sao Paulo with his family when he was 14 and joined Barcelona Esportivo Capel, his first proper football club, when he was 16.

While Costa was serving a four month ban for punching an opposition player and threatening a referee, an employee of super-agent Jorge Mendes came to watch Capel play. For an unknown reason Costa’s ban was lifted for the game, and 90 minutes later he was offered a contract with Sporting Braga, and moved to Europe on his own aged 18. 

Signed by Atleti in 2007, he had loan spells in Spain with Celta Vigo, Albacete and Valladolid before breaking into the Atleti team under Quique Sanchez Flores in 2011. This elevated status did not lead to an improvement in professionalism, however, and he turned up three days late for pre-season training the following summer. It was not his first breach of discipline - the previous year, he returned from the summer seven kilograms overweight, with one club employee describing him as "looking like a beach ball".

A severe knee injury kept him out for the first six months of 2011-12 and in January he moved a couple of miles south to Vallecas for a loan spell with Rayo Vallecano, whose Coach Jose Ramon Sandoval once remarked to the forward, "You are the most consistent player I've had - you go into every game wanting to score and get a yellow card."

Sandoval's comments were only half in jest - Costa has picked up 58 bookings and been sent off seven times in his relatively short career.

Costa knows that he needs to change, admitting in February 2012: "I always used to get wound up. Now I've learnt that if you don't respect your opponent, you get left behind."

Two weeks ago it became clear Costa has still not cleaned up the ugly side to his game, but in his last two performances he has demonstrated his true qualities as a footballer. Atletico will be hoping that on Sunday night at the Camp Nou it is the latter rather than the former that rears its head.

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