Type his name into a search engine, and the Internet will tell you that Diego Costa plays for Chelsea Football Club. It will tell you that the 28-year-old Spanish striker scored 20 goals last season en route to a Premier League title. That he is under contract at Stamford Bridge through the summer of 2019.
But as everything and everybody else associated with Chelsea converged on west London on Saturday afternoon for the club’s Premier League opener, Costa sat at his childhood home in Brazil surrounded by family and friends. He’s effectively in exile, though part of the exile is self-imposed. And he might not be coming back soon.
Costa gave a wide-ranging interview to the Daily Mail on Saturday in which he told his side of the story. And that story is complex. Costa accused Chelsea of treating him “like a criminal.” He blamed manager Antonio Conte for intervening in and derailing his contract negotiations with the club, and said he does not respect the Italian as a person. He labeled the Chelsea boss “distant.”
Chelsea, Costa says, has ordered him to return to England, but not to the first team; to the reserves. “I wouldn’t be allowed access to the first-team dressing room and I would have no contact at all with the guys,” he told the Daily Mail. So the Brazilian-born Spaniard isn’t budging. He’s training alone in Brazil, hasn’t been to England since May, and has been hit with fines corresponding to his absences. His lawyers are exploring legal action. He is “waiting for Chelsea to set [him] free.”
Costa wants to go to Atletico Madrid, where he rose to stardom from 2010-2014. “I’ve spoken to Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia,” he told The Daily Mail. “I have rejected other offers. They want to sell me to China or other teams. … If I’m off, I’m going to the club I want to go to — not the club that’s paying the most.”
Costa insists he will remain in Brazil instead of acquiescing to the club’s demands. “They want me training with the reserves,” he said. “I am not going to do that. I am not a criminal and I am not in the wrong here. So, if they need to fine me, let them fine me. I take the hit every week but I’m not driven by money. The important thing is to be happy with how I live. I’m here with my parents and people who respect me. If I have to I will stay in Brazil.”
Costa made it clear in the Daily Mail interview that there is no feud with the club’s fans or players. He said he still communicates regularly with teammates, who tell him they miss him and love him. “I didn’t want to leave. I was happy,” he said.
But he received a text message from Antonio Conte while on international duty with Spain telling him he was no longer wanted at Chelsea. Costa told that story in the Daily Mail interview: “I was with the Spain national team, alone in my room, when it came through. It was a shock to get it like that. I was showing it to my team-mates and they could not believe how he had done it. … You don’t do it by text message. You should be honest and direct to someone’s face.”
Costa maintained that he and Conte had not discussed the player’s future after Chelsea’s final game of the 2016-17 season, an FA Cup final loss to Arsenal. He said the text came out of the blue.
‘I was angry at the time,” Costa said. “Now I am more calm. I have not deleted the message. If people accuse me of lying, I can show them. It was clear, saying that he didn’t count on me and wishing me the best for the future. Full stop.”
Costa also accused Conte of impeding his contract negotiations with Chelsea last winter after the two had a falling out in training. “In January, things happened with the coach,” Costa said. “I was on the brink of renewing my contract and they put the brakes on it. I suspect the manager was behind it. He asked for that to happen.”
Costa said that he respected Conte as a “great” coach, and said the Italian “deserves to be where he is,” but criticized his character, pointing to some of his flaws. “He is not a coach who is very close with his players,” Costa said. “He is very distant. He doesn’t possess charisma.”
As always, there are two sides to the story, and many of the details of the training bust-up or the sour relationship between Conte and Costa have been kept under wraps. Conte has claimed that the club told Costa he was no part of their future plans last winter. Chelsea has rejected Costa’s assertions that the club would confine him to training with the reserves upon his return. And Costa, despite professing his love for (certain aspects of) Chelsea in the Daily Mail interview, has previously pushed for a move back to Atletico.
Plus, the club’s supposed refusal to sell Costa to Atletico is not as simple as it sounds. The Spanish club is operating under a transfer ban, meaning it cannot register new players until January. It therefore reportedly wants Chelsea to subsidize some portion of Costa’s hefty salary, an idea the Premier League champions have reportedly balked at.
And then there’s the matter of the transfer fee. Chelsea’s asking price (reportedly around £40 million) is far higher than Atletico’s offer (reportedly under £30 million). But Costa’s explicit desire to play for Atletico and only Atletico has made negotiations difficult. Other clubs — such as Chinese teams and, reportedly, AC Milan — are offering more money, but Atletico feel no need to match those offers if Costa only wants to return to Spain.
If Costa really is willing to spend two whole unpaid years in Brazil, Chelsea could be forced to lower its transfer free demands. That’s probably one reason Costa said what he said in the interview. But it seems unlikely he’d actually sacrifice the waning years of his prime to help his former (and potentially future) club secure a better deal for him.
Nonetheless, the interview is quite remarkable and extremely revealing. The Daily Mail travelled all the way to Brazil to track down Costa, and actually watched the second-half of the Burnley game with him. This scene-setting is fantastic:
As the final moments of Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat by Burnley play out, his father peeks round the door. Zeinha shakes his head. Costa says: ‘They are two players down, to be fair, Dad.’ Another friend pops by: ‘Bring back Diego!’ he laughs. Costa grimaces.
As Chelsea chase the game, Costa’s intensity builds. David Luiz makes it 3-2 with two minutes left. Costa is off the settee and celebrating, dropping his phone.
‘The Premier League is the top. These moments, chasing a game, with seconds to spare. It’s what we live for. You saw Arsenal against Leicester? Madness. Then Liverpool? 3-3, last minute! Rooney has scored for Everton! I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t miss those moments.’