Costa a stranger in his return home
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Diego Costa would have been excused had he run towards the sidelines instead of slowly removing himself from the pitch after 64 minutes of a miserable afternoon for Spain. While the clock suggested that there was still time for the world champions to mount a comeback against Chile, Costa's blank stare suggested otherwise.
There at the Maracana, Spain's dream of defending their 2010 title was crumbling fast and prematurely. Moreover, the striker still had to deal with a torrent of jeers and abuse reserved especially for him, a repetition of the scenes in Salvador he faced during La Furia Roja's humiliation by the Dutch.
In both matches Costa was called a "traitor," and much worse, by Brazilian fans. The Atletico Madrid man knew the crowds would have it in for him but it still sounded cruel and unfair, for Diego is one of five Brazilian-born players taking part in the World Cup for other countries.
Last week, Selecao fans packing Sao Paulo's Arena Corinthians didn't acknowledge the presence of striker Eduardo da Silva, born and bred in Rio before becoming Croatia's second all-time top scorer, even though he remained on the bench in their 3-1 defeat to the hosts. The same went for his teammate, fellow Brazilian Sammir.
There were no reports of taunts in Manaus when Thiago Motta featured for Italy in their 2-1 victory over England. Pepe did get booed during Portugal's defeat to Germany in Salvador, but that had more to do with the fact that he would tackle his own shadow with studs up.
What makes Costa stand out is the fact he chose to represent the only nation (besides Uruguay) that has managed to really get under Brazilian skins. Whether he likes it or not, he poured jet fuel over the bonfire of bravado and jealousy that explains relations between Brazilian and Spanish football.
It is a complex issue, and just a brief walk around Brazilian cities on a non-World Cup weekend would reveal a great number of people of all ages wearing either Real Madrid or Barcelona colours. La Liga matches are regularly broadcast in Brazil and the media never shied from purring when the Catalans were winning everything under the sun just a couple of years ago. But when talk of "tiki-taka" becoming the new "jogo bonito" spread, bitterness ensued.
It's an understatement to say Brazilians are quite protective of their footballing history. Owners of five world titles and the admiration of fans everywhere, they didn't easily handle the emotional swing after Barca and Spain started their impressive run. But the biggest insult was the flurry of articles not long ago declaring that Spain's trophy collection would make them superior to the 1970 Selecao.
It was a painful suggestion. After all, fans were used to the Selecao bossing Spain -- one of the most striking memories of the 1950 World Cup, for example, is the day Brazil hammered Spain 6-1 and the whole stadium sang "Bullfights in Madrid," a popular carnival song.
The resentment is even more curious when one notes that this rivalry is not even based on head-to-head battles. Argentina, Uruguay and Italy are teams the Selecao have much more history with on the pitch. In the case of Argentina, the whole Maradona versus Pele or Pele versus Messi question could motivate hours of debate.
Spain, meanwhile, were perceived to be stealing Brazil's thunder as artisans. Hence how Xavi, Iniesta and co were received at last year's Confederations Cup: with boos and complaints about the "boring" passing football. The Spanish players never hid their degree of annoyance in response. Why all the animosity? After all, they were a pretty awesome bunch that had lifted two European championships and a World Cup trophy.
After the now-famous Maracana drubbing when the Selecao won 3-0 to lift the Confederations Cup -- their first encounter with Spain in 14 years -- the mood became darker still. Nothing, however, would be so poisonous to the atmosphere as Costa's "defection."
Judgment is not the point here; the Atletico forward is entitled to his choices, and apart from having lived in Spain for most of his professional life, he was publicly snubbed by Big Phil Scolari and only properly considered when the manager realized Brazil lacked firepower up front. But there is also no way he could not expect negative reactions.
Even colleagues in similar situations criticized him. Eduardo, for example, lambasted Costa for turning down Brazil. "As much as I am grateful to Croatia for everything I've done, I would never have played for them had Brazil given me a chance. Millions of players dream of wearing the Selecao shirt, and Diego snubbed this chance," he famously said.
Thus, it is understandable that Costa was catapulted into the role of super-villain. For many people, his naturalization equated to an endorsement of Spanish superiority over Brazil's history in the game, which is why Spain and Diego were never going to be given an easy ride by fans. As a famous Brazilian joke goes, fans would be hailing Satan if Spain faced a Hell's XI.
Costa's transition has so far proved to be anything but a fairy tale. An explosive and muscular player, he hardly looks the most natural fit for the current Spanish system, and his injury towards the end of last season seriously curbed his powers for the World Cup.
While many of his teammates avoided even eye contact with journalists after their capitulation against the Netherlands, Costa took the time to talk about the rough reception. "I prepared myself for the jeers. Just as it was within my rights to choose which team I wanted to play for, they [supporters] are entitled to their opinions," he said.
Still, it must have been lonesome; his teammates were seen trying to cheer him up in their opening game once the boos began. In the second match, they were all too busy melting down in Rio against Chile to actually worry about anything else.
In the end, it all got a bit too much for the chico from Brazil. Randomly chosen for the doping test in Rio, Costa left the stadium without negotiating his way through the mixed zone. It's hard to think he has ever felt like more of a stranger in his own country.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.