Diego Costa scored his first Chelsea goal 17 minutes into his first Premier League match. Patience is not a virtue Costa is known for possessing.
Chelsea were trailing Burnley 1-0 away at Turf Moor to open their 2014-15 campaign when a cross from Branislav Ivanovic deflected off a Burnley defender onto keeper Tom Heaton’s goal post. The ball then rolled out to Costa who was perfectly positioned to smash a shot through the legs of center back Michael Duff into the back of the net. It was extremely scrappy. It was not pretty. It was quintessentially Diego Costa.
Unlike fellow Atletico Madrid-nurtured strikers Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero, ‘pretty’ is not a word one would ever attach to Costa. The 28-year-old’s hardened facial features suggest an individual whose life experiences have rendered vanity a moot point. When Costa scrunches his face into a scowl (which he often does), he looks like a man whose "seen some stuff".
And Costa has "seen some stuff". His formative footballing experiences came during fiery street games in his hometown of Lagarto, Brazil. According to his father, this is where Costa learned how to "use his body to his advantage". Despite having no experience in proper 11 versus 11 football, Costa went straight from those street games into the under-17 team at Barcelona EC after a successful tryout with the small, Rio-based club.
It was there that Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes discovered Costa. Significantly, Mendes was only able to watch Costa play after the then 15-year-old had a 120-day suspension for punching an opposing defender successfully appealed. Video evidence showed the defender had provoked Costa by punching him first. The willingness (desire?) to entrench himself in confrontation has stayed with Costa throughout his career.
When one considers the fight (and "fight' is a most appropriate word to attach to Costa) he has had to endure to make it from the mean streets of Lagarto to the bright lights of European football’s biggest matches, his confrontational demeanor makes more sense. Costa had no part of the pampered academy system life like many modern footballers. Understanding his demeanor and enjoying it are two different things however. Costa has been perpetually disliked by opposition supporters throughout his career, but has usually found his edginess celebrated (or at least tolerated) by his own fans. As rumors of a possible big-money move to the Chinese Super League began circulating this past January though, Costa suddenly found himself a polarizing figure amongst Chelsea’s faithful.
Coinciding with this newfound polarization, not coincidentally, was a dip in Costa’s form. The nadir of those underwhelming performances came in Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford in April. Costa’s display in the match functioned as a veritable greatest hits collection of all the criticisms his detractors have had for him. Never a graceful player, his clumsy feet were where Chelsea’s counterattacks went to die, and engaging perennial pest Marcos Rojo in mindless altercations was apparently of greater concern to him than scoring a goal. It was frustrating to say the least. That Jose Mourinho stood watching over all the silliness seemed appropriate.
As Chelsea manager, Mourinho was not afraid to encourage the sinister side of Costa’s game. Costa played matches under Mourinho as if he was a controversial Mourinho press conference in human form. When his aggression was successfully channeled, Costa was like Mourinho’s "I'm a special one" press conference. He was bold and contentious, but also calculated and measured. When Costa’s temper would boil over though (think David Luiz baiting him in the second leg of the 2015 Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain or basically any match from the first half of the 2015-16 season), he was like the desperate, petulant version of Mourinho that infamously called out his own medical staff. The line between good-bad Costa and bad-bad Costa is almost comically fine, and Mourinho appeared to want Costa to tip toe that line like the world’s greatest tightrope walker.
It’s worth noting, under Mourinho or otherwise, Costa has never received a red card in a Chelsea shirt (and only received one at Atletico Madrid). Despite the English tabloids’ "Costa Crimes!" hyperbole, and his generally agitated temperament, Costa seems to be acutely aware of which lines he absolutely must not cross even if his fussiness can at times distract from the quality of his play.
Under Antonio Conte, however, a different version of Costa altogether surfaced for a particularly fruitful stretch this past season. When Costa picked up his fourth yellow card during Chelsea’s sixth Premier League match against Arsenal in September few would have guessed that he would successfully navigate the next ten league matches without seeing another yellow. During that ten-match stretch, Costa netted eight goals and played with a previously unseen efficient calmness. The off-the-ball antics and heated protestations to officials were minimal to non-existent. Pleasant thoughts of a mild-mannered Costa with all the goals and none of the drama began to dance in the minds of Chelsea supporters.
But drama is drama, and Costa is Costa, and those two things appear to be inextricably linked no matter how long the striker’s volatility remains dormant. The China rumors did quiet (and ultimately cease) and Costa even kissed (or at least bit) the Chelsea badge after his goal in the FA Cup final, but an apparent heated text message exchange (of all things) with Conte looks to be a burned bridge too far for Costa and his relationship with the club.
Costa’s Chelsea legacy will be complicated. He was an integral part of two league title-winning sides and for that he will forever have a prominent place in the club’s history, but the recurrent controversy (some of it warranted and some of it not), the incessant flirtations with Atletico Madrid, and the presumed falling out with Conte will all be a part of his legacy, too.
Perhaps this (likely) unpleasant ending to Costa’s time with Chelsea should have been expected. Thorniness has been a part of Costa’s M.O. since his time on the Lagarto streets. When Conte arrived at Chelsea last summer, he preached the importance of teamwork, but there always seemed to be an element of solitude to Costa’s plight. The lonely image of Costa isolated from his teammates, palms turned upwards, face contorted into an aggrieved expression is one that football fans are well-accustomed to seeing. Maybe that lone wolf approach is something Costa’s felt he’s had to adopt to make in the sport. He's made it a long way from Lagarto, after all. That approach isn’t exactly pretty, but Costa has never tried to be pretty.