After 11 games of the 2015/16 season, José Mourinho’s Chelsea sit in 15th place, having accrued one point per game. At a time of potential upheaval at the club, with rumour and opprobrium swirling around like November fog, Diego Costa’s biography could have made for a particularly pertinent read. Unfortunately, The Art of War is generally as underwhelming as the performances of its subject’s team.
Fran Guillén, a Spanish football journalist, certainly has good access to the figures who played the greatest part in the development of Diego Costa as a player; his family and the coaching teams at Atlético Madrid and his various loan clubs. Indeed, Costa’s less than smooth trajectory to the Atléti first team is one of the more interesting aspects of his story. As Jesús García Pitarch, the former director of football at the Vicente Calderón says, “Costa always had the potential to become a great player but he lacked 300 games. That’s the number of games your average 18-year-old La Liga footballer would have played at youth level.” Costa, of course, did not move to Braga until he was 17 and had barely played organised football in his native Brazil. His drive and focus to become a professional in spite of his background is an oft-repeated trope in Guillén’s book.
So too is Costa’s appetite for battle on the pitch, of course. While the Spanish international scored at almost a goal every other game for Atléti and has bettered that for Chelsea, he most regularly attracts interest for his physically abrasive approach. As former teammate Álvaro Domínguez neatly puts it, “[Costa] would never back down. He’s a joy if he’s on your team but if not, he’s a total bastard.”
Nonetheless, the narrative of Costa’s time in Spain is one of growing maturity and responsibility. That might not have been initially obvious, as Juan Valera describes someone who seemed not to know really if he was a hard-man or a sweetheart: “He’d punch you and then when the referee whistled, give you a hug and apologise.” But it is very clear from Guillén’s sources that Costa thrives on acceptance, as one might expect of a young man uprooted from his homeland having worked incredibly hard to get an opportunity, only to then find himself on a merry-go-round of loans. The culture at Diego Simeone’s Atléti, with an emphasis on work ethic and team commitment, suited Costa perfectly, even if it at times seemed too keen to justify his shit-housery.
The move to Chelsea and the preceding season of success with Atléti and then failure with Spain at the World Cup is described in excellent detail, and Costa’s reasons for choosing Spain at international level seem very genuine and justified. His desire to succeed in England was not in doubt, but it is interesting that the move to Chelsea was probably the first time he did not feel the need to establish himself. That’s not to say he did not work hard, but every season, bar the last two, at Atléti saw potential loan moves and Costa always felt he was swimming against an unforgiving tide. Tellingly, an early Mourinho assessment of Costa was that “he is ready. He doesn’t need a mentor. He is a made player – an end product, a complete striker.” This seems a flawed approach in some ways from the Portguese manager: the figure of Costa that emerges from the book is one who always needs a mentor, a guide, someone who can blend a challenge with an arm around the shoulder. Costa’s price-tag and Chelsea’ desperation more or less guaranteed him a starting spot under a manager who believed he was already the complete player. Perhaps the lack of challenge and the lack of guidance, while hardly blunting his goal threat, have added to Costa’s aggressive edge as he seeks to push himself and go looking for the confrontation lacking at Chelsea, but without the calming advice of other senior players or a Simeone figure? It’s not a question that the book answers, but it certainly poses it.
All that having been said, the book struggles to sustain interest in a non-partisan reader. The chapter headings are quotes from Sun Tzu’s treatise of the same name and are as gimmicky as that sounds. There is a lot of detail, a lot of descriptions of matches and goals, and if you are a fan of Diego Costa, Atlético Madrid, or Chelsea, you’ll doubtless love it. But as books about footballers go, it is mid-table at best.
There is little of the insight of Tony Cascarino’s wonderful Full Time, the finely-crafted writing of Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed, or the entertaining egocentric honesty of Roy Keane’s two efforts. Indeed, they are all autobiographies and that is part of the problem: I have no doubt that Diego Costa has some interesting things to say, but his voice is present only in press conference quotes and newspaper interviews. This is a well-researched and thorough study, but Costa’s voice, the most important, is largely absent. It is a shame, because if he wasn’t trying to kick your shinbone out the back of your leg, I suspect Diego Costa would be quite an interesting man. Fran Guillén’s book hints at that, but fails to deliver on its promise.
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