When Arsenal faced Atletico Madrid in their Europa League semi-final second leg, there was only ever going to be one match-winner.
After his comeback from injury in Atleti's 1-0 win over Leganes the game before, Diego Costa was unwavering in his desire to get one over on his old rivals.
There are few players who strike more fear into the hearts of those on the red side of north London and none more capable of crushing the soft core of the Arsenal backline. As he proved at the Wanda, with his goal the difference in a 2-1 aggregate win.
For Costa himself, the glamour of that European semi-final in front of 67,000 people was light-years away from where his career began 14 years ago.
The hard-hitting centre-forward, who comes from the arid north-east of Brazil, got his first break with Sao Paulo-based lower-league side Barcelona Esportivo Capela.
Last month, I spoke to club president Paulo Moura at their training ground to reflect on Costa’s humble beginnings and subsequent success.
“Diego”, Moura recalls, “came to Sao Paulo to live with his uncle. I don’t know if he intended to work or play football, but his uncle had a business selling things in the centre of Sao Paulo. It was this uncle who brought him to us.”
Barcelona, a small outfit more focussed on giving chances to young prospects than chasing the trophies desired by their famous namesake, welcomed Costa with open arms, inviting him to travel with their U17s to a competition in another state. “At that time, we were about to do a trip. We had a tournament to play in Minas Gerais”, Moura says.
“As I told you, we have this open-door policy, so I asked him where he played, and he told me he was a forward. I spoke to the uncle and said, ‘We’re going away tomorrow, if you give him permission, he can travel with the group.’”
That chance was all the 15-year-old needed and, Moura continues, “during the competition he scored three or four goals in every game. Then, when he turned 16, he went straight into the first team. He turned 16 and immediately the coach said, ‘Now he’ll be playing with the professionals.’”
Although his ability and physicality were clear for all to see, Moura believes it was his personality that truly set him apart from the rest, and praises the influence of Costa’s family, “He wasn’t a boy who came here all naive, who didn’t know what to do. He already had attitude. This helped a lot in his construction as an individual, in what he became.
“He comes from a humble family, but he comes from a well-structured family. His mother was a teacher… He had siblings who went to school, he studied, which is rare in Brazil. This helped a lot. Diego’s personality was constructed inside the home.”
I then bring up Costa’s reputation as an agent provocateur, someone who will do whatever it takes to win the game. “He was always like that,” Moura retorts, “he was always a strong, angry person. But off the pitch he wasn’t. Off the pitch he was always really kind, he liked to joke around.”
So, it’s like he’s an actor going on stage, playing a role? “Exactly! Exactly! It’s Clark Kent, he takes off his glasses and turns into Superman. Something like that. I believe that Diego incorporated this into his life and it went well. Very well. There’s no need to change things when they’re going well. If he had acted like a silly little boy, people [at this level] would have swallowed him alive.”
After a year playing in the fourth tier of the Sao Paulo state league, Costa got his big move, with the help of one of football’s best-known intermediaries. “We contacted Jorge Mendes. I sent a message and told him about Diego. [I said] that we had a player who, without doubt, would be interesting for him.”
“We loaned him to Braga. He arrived there to train in the U20s and… in the first session the coach of the Braga B team was watching. He said to the U20s manager, ‘You get this boy into my side. He’s not an U20 player.’
"So, he went to train with the B team. Then, the coach of the first team, Jesualdo, was watching the B team and said, ‘Get him out of there! He’s not a B team player, he’s coming to train with the pros.’ Things happen in this way for Diego.”
Barcelona, as alluded to previously, was founded with the aim of giving opportunities to players who cannot break through at Brazil’s bigger sides, and the young men who currently pull on the club’s blue shirt have an average age of just 20. For them, Costa’s accomplishments provide impetus and motivation.
Carlos Henrique, a 20-year-old central midfielder, told me that, “Diego Costa inspires me because he got out of these difficulties that we go through every day and managed to overcome all of this. So, we can get there too.”
His thoughts were echoed by his team-mates Lucas Maxi Santos, Marcelo Felipe and Gerson Matheus, who, flanked by manager Joao Paulo, all spoke of their ambitions to one day play at the highest level.
Even Costa’s controversial decision to pick Spain over Brazil could not lessen his popularity in these parts, and Moura, the club president, tells me that, “In the Brazilian team, he never had the opportunity. He played two friendlies, only for about 15 minutes. After that they had two or three more opportunities to select him, but Felipao didn’t call him up once.
“So, Del Bosque called him to ask if he wanted to play. People said he betrayed his homeland. You think the guy doesn’t want to play for the Selecao? Anyone’s dream is to serve their country, but when their country doesn’t want them, you go after your second dream.
“He made his whole professional life [in Spain]”, Moura continues, “He never had anything here. If he owes something to someone professionally, he owes it to Spain, not to Brazil. To say that he betrayed the fatherland is incoherent at best.”
Costa, now 29, still has a lot of football left to play and will have his sights set firmly on lifting the Europa League with Atletico and the World Cup in Russia, where he could even face the country of his birth in the final.
Pondering the path that Costa has trodden since leaving Sao Paulo, Moura reflects that, “Sometimes people seem like they have their destiny set out ahead of them, and he had that. He’s proven that. He’s never stopped.”