Monday, May 14, 2007

Rui Costa

Rui Costa was perhaps the most old-fashioned, elegant playmaker of his era. But he played in Italy at a time when Serie A had more than its fair share of the world's great playmakers - Zinedine Zidane, Dejan Savicevic, Allessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio, among many others, all played against Rui Costa during his time at Fiorentina and AC Milan - and as a result he never quite received the recogniton he deserved. In addition, he was part of Portugal's famous "Golden Generation", alongside the equally talented Luis Figo, meaning that he never even received the acclaim he warranted in his homeland, always having to share the spotlight with his team-mate. But in the late 1990s, if you searched Europe for a player capable of controlling the pace of a game, or of opening up a defence with a dribble or a perfectly placed through-ball, there was really nobody better.

His vision was perhaps his greatest, most unique gift. There is a sequence in the video below highlighting his ability to pick out a forward closing in on goal, often from within the centre circle, with a single, perfectly weighted, precisely-threaded ball between scrambling, panicked defenders. Forwards as celebrated as Gabrielle Batistuta and Andrei Shevchenko both benefitted greatly from this talent. Rui Costa made it look effortless, never seeming rushed in possession and always appearing assured of what he intended to do, he seemed always to have more time than anyone else on the pitch:

That confidence obviously came from his technical virtuousity. His touch was gentle, but he was blessed with the pace and acceleration of a winger when he strode forward with the ball, shedding defenders as he went with shimmys and stepovers. He had the ability to pick out a pass at any moment, but he was just as likely to perform a lollipop or set himself for a shot. So many of the goals in the above video are placed finishes, curlers which he caresses into the corner of the net, mockingly just beyond the grasp of a goalkeeper, his composure marked and admirable. But he was also capable of drilling shots from outside the box:

This stupendous goal for Milan shows a combination of his skills, with a little run to start off, then a blasted curling ball into the top corner from outside the box :

Born Rui Manuel Cesar Costa in Lisbon in 1972, he was spotted at a trial for Benfica, the Lisbon club he supported throughout his childhood, by none other than Eusebio at the age of 10, and spent his teens playing for Benfica's youth teams. In 1990 he was loaned out to AD Fafe for a season, gaining experience of the professional game. Perhaps the greatest experience he gained, however, came from his time spent in the Portugeuse Youth system. Overseen by Carlos Quieroz, that system had produced the team that won the Under-20 world Youth Championship in 1989 in Saudi Arabia. In 1991 the Championships were held in Portugal itself, and a team including Costa, Figo, Fernando Couto, Joao Pinto, Paolo Sousa and Sergio Conceicao beat Brazil in a penalty shootout in the final. Rui Costa took the deciding penalty, watched on television by most of the population of Portugal, and expectations of what this "Golden Generation" would achieve at senior level were stratospheric. Costa was welcomed into the first team at Benfica during the next season by coach Sven Goran Eriksson, playing in his customary role as attacking midfielder. I first saw him play when Benfica beat Arsenal at Highbury in the European Cup in 1994, and he was the oustanding individual. He liked to pick the ball up in central midfield and stride forward with his distinctive busy movement, skinning opponents and evading tackles before laying the ball off. Some players wind up before they strike the ball, you can see them prepare their body in the seconds before they execute the move they intend, their shoulders tigtening slightly, their hips rotating, heads maybe tilting to a certain angle. But Rui Costa struck the ball with fantastic ease - it rolled off his feet, always in his stride, as if he had not even meant to pass it, as if the perfectly placed ball he had just delivered was an accident, a fluke of his pumping sprint. That sprint too - he was deceptively pacy - never looked too strenuous, due to his strange jerky gait. He worked hard, covering lots of ground, working the spaces of midfield, but never tracking back, not making too many tackles, as if he thought defensive duties were beneath one with such extravagant technical gifts. One of his managers at Fiorentina, Claudio Raineiri, was prompted to ask him if all games in Portugal were played on a slope, because he never ran back to defend.

He won a Portugeuse league title and cup at Benfica before he was sold to Fiorentina in 1994. Instantly striking up an understanding with the awesome Batistuta, he remained there for 7 seasons, winning two Italian Cups and constantly being linked with transfers to bigger clubs. But he enjoyed the pace of life in Florence and obviously enjoyed the adoration of the Fiorentina fans, where he and "Batigol" were two very big fish in a relatively small pond. He also enjoyed absolute freedom on the pitch, especially under Turkish coach Fatih Terim in his last season. Terim, realising how important Costa was to the teams attacking style, especially in the absence of Batstuta, who had moved to Roma, told the Portugeuse that he had the freedom of the pitch, he could go anywhere and do anything he chose. When Terim moved to AC Milan in 2001, he brought Costa with him for a fee of 35 Million euros. Here he was instrumental in Milan's European success, helping them to a Champions League victory in 2003. That summer, Milan purchased the young Brazilian Kaka, and he quickly replaced the ageing Rui Costa as the player in the withdrawn role behind Milan's strikers. They are very similar players, and it is a great tribute to Kaka that his contribution was so great that Milan have not missed Costa since he left to return to Benfica in 2006. In those last two seasons at Milan, Costa played rarely, since Milan had a surfeit of playmakers - as well as Costa and Kaka there were Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo. He is still contracted to Benfica and intends to end his career there, where it started.

The Golden Generation never really lived up to its billing, though they came close. In Euro 96, they were eliminated by eventual finalist the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, having played some lovely football to get there. However, they never really looked like the finished article, the many individual talents on display not quite blended properly yet. They had been in Ireland's group for the Qualifiers, and I remember being shocked by how fluent and skillful they had seemed when they took us apart, 3-0, in Lisbon. Costa scored a beautiful goal that night, firing a 30 yard screamer into the top corner, and he utterly controlled the game, embarassing our midfield. They seemed to be living up to their billing as "the European Brazil", at least in terms of the flair and skill with which they playe dthe game. They were grouped with European Champions Germany in the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup, a tournament for which that group would perhaps have been at its peak. During the German tie between the two countries, with Portugal leading, Rui Costa was sent off for taking too long to leave the field, Germany recovered to win the match against 10 men, and they qualified for the tournament at Portugal's expense. Euro 2000 was to be the first tournament at which they showed the true beauty and effectiveness of their football, with Costa orchestrating everything. Their amazing 3-2 win against England in their first game, when they came back from 2-0 down, set the tone. Alongside hosts Holland they were the entertainers of the tournament, playing flowing, attractive attacking football. However they ran into World Champions France in the semi-finals and were eliminated, after a tense, tight contest, by a controversial Golden Goal. Zidane scored with a penalty after Abel Xavier handled in the area, the Portugeuse threw a massive tantrum, but they were out. Worse was to come in the 2002 World Cup in Japan & Korea, where Portugal, in common with other favourites France and Argentina, were dumped out of the tournament in the group phase . After an hour of their first game against the USA, Portugal were 3-0 down, a barely imaginable scoreline. They pulled two goals back, but their campaign never really recovered from that early shock, even though they beat Poland 4-0. They needed a draw against South Korea in the last game to advance to the knock-out phase, but instead had two players sent off and lost to a late goal from Park Ji-Sung.

The Golden Generation had aged, and both Costa and Figo were no longer considered certain starters for Euro 2004, which Portugal hosted. A new generation of stylish Portuguese players led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa had emerged, and Brazilian coach Phil Scolari trusted them, loading his squad with players from the Porto team which had just won the Champions League. But Costa still made a worthy contribution, displaying his class when he came off the bench during the quarter-Final clash with England to score this goal:

The final, which Portugal lost to Greece, would prove to be his last match for his country. He is the third most capped Portugeuse player of all time. However, it is for his exploits at club level for which he will be chiefly remembered, certainly at Milan and Benfica, where his talent was rewarded with the tropies it deserved. But especially at Fiorentina, where he played probably the best football of his career before a devoted audience :

  • 101 Great Goals
  • Football 365
  • Guardian Football
  • Hasta el Gol Siempre
  • BBC Football
  • Football Shirts