Diego Costa is, at this moment, the best Brazilian striker in the world. The 21 goals he's scored for this year's title-challenging Atlético Madrid team are the fourth highest tally in the top five European leagues. Normally, you'd think Costa's impressive resumé would see him as one of the faces of the Seleção, out among his compatriots in South Africa today priming the Brazilian faithful for the expected coronation on home soil at this summer's World Cup. You'd be wrong.
Instead, Costa will soon enter familiar territory, the dressing room at Atléti's Vicente Calderón Stadium, getting ready to pull on the the red shirt of his adopted Spain for the first time. Defection isn't uncommon. Many Brazilian players over the years have plied their international trade for various national teams, not good enough to crack the depth chart for what is always a world-class Seleção. The USMNT's very own Benny Feilhaber was born in Brazil, after all.
The rarity of Costa's situation comes from the team he has defected to. This Spanish squad, should they win in Brazil this summer after hoisting the cup in two consecutive Euro tournaments and the most recent World Cup, would solidify themselves as indisputably the greatest national team of all time. The late-blooming Costa was never shown much love from Brazil's youth teams, so when Spain came calling last year and he received his citizenship, he made the jump—to much gnashing of teeth in his home country.
"A Brazilian player who refuses to wear the shirt of the Brazilian national team and compete in a World Cup in your country is automatically withdrawn," Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said in a statement. "He is turning his back on a dream of millions."
The thing is, this move could potentially swing the World Cup. By far the weakest position in the expected Brazilian lineup is at center forward. Fred has been the striker of choice; He is a decent player and can look pretty good in the very specific role he's asked to play—hold up play to start attacks, get the ball to the playmakers that create the chances, then finish them when teed up—but no one would mistake him for a world-beater. Leandro Damião once looked like the striker of the future, but he's not been the same player for club or country that impressed at the 2012 Olympics. And Alexandre Pato is still Alexandre Pato, oscillating between tantalizing, incompetent, and injured in equal measure.
A player of Diego Costa's ability would be perfect for a Brazilian squad that are already favorites for the title despite their cadre of mediocre strikers. For much of his career he's shown a willingness to play second fiddle to the likes of Agüero and Falcao, so he could fit seamlessly into this Neymar-and-Friends set-up. Plus, he finishes better than Fred, is a better holdup player, is a more creative player, and is great at setting the pressing tone this Brazil team thrives on.
It's for all of those qualities that Spain's manager Vicente del Bosque tried to woo Costa to join his side. La Roja also have a glaring hole at the striker position. David Villa, who's so often been the man Spain has turned to for goals on this unprecedented run, is still trying to prove he is the same player he was before a string of serious injuries crippled his last two Barcelona seasons. Fernando Torres, once the surefire heir apparent to Villa, is now not even considered a disappointment when he doesn't make the bench for Chelsea. The only top quality, in-form striker Spain have is Álvaro Negredo, who been great in his first season at Manchester City, but "only" to the tune of 14 goals in 31 appearances.
He'll face at least a bit of controversy with his new Spanish team. For one, some Spaniards haven't taken too kindly at the implication that the greatest soccer nation needs to outsource the No. 9 position to a foreigner. In their mind, they've already won so much with their own players—conveniently eliding Brazil-born Marcos Senna's role in the 2008 Euro victory that set everything off—that they'd prefer sticking with Spaniards. There's also potential bad blood among some of the Real Madrid players stemming from what has quickly become the most heated rivalry in Spain: the Madrid Derby. But Costa has said all the right things there, intimating that once the final whistle is blown in those matches all hard feelings between him and Sergio Ramos melt away.
So in comes newly-naturalized Diego Costa for today's friendly. Costa has been given the start over Negredo, somewhat of a surprise seeing that Negredo's been in the national side longer. But just getting into the game today won't completely put an end to speculation about Costa's future. Costa won't be permanently tied to a national team until the next competitive match, which for Spain won't be until they face off against the Netherlands in the World Cup group stage.
Still, if Spain isn't yet committed to Costa, it's pretty fair to say Costa is stuck with Spain. Brazil's Football Association hasn't taken too kindly to losing one of their own to a direct rival and have even stated their desire to strip Costa of his Brazilian citizenship. Scolari has similarly announced that he's written off Costa, saying a Brazilian who has snubbed the Seleção has no place in his team. That doesn't leave too much room for negotiation.
Photo via Getty