The transfer rumour racket is a funny old business; a sub-industry where everything between Chinese whispers and outright slander is completely acceptable as readers wade through eternal tonnes of tabloid manure to find a milligram of half-truth that turns out to have absolutely no relevance to the player or club (or both) in question.
I’m as guilty as any other in helping the rumour mill continuously churn; it is a necessary evil in the ambiguous gap between journalism and online bloggery and the fact of the matter is that readers, whether they regard it as fact or fantasy, always seem to come back for more.
But as a consequence, I’ve developed a refined sense of smell throughout my years reporting on transfer chatter, catching a whiff of validity amongst the endless tsunami of hyperbolic hearsay, and if there’s one story that’s becoming all the more plausible as we approach the summer transfer window, it’s Atletico Madrid’s speculated intentions to re-sign Chelsea striker Diego Costa.
I say speculated, but this story starts with a relatively strong basis – an alluding quote from none other than Atletico president Enrique Cerezo, who last month told Spanish radio station COPE that bringing back the forward is on his agenda: “We have a magnificent relationship with the players who leave this club. He is a magnificent player but he is a Chelsea player. We will do everything possible and let’s see what Chelsea say because it does not depend on us.”
Actions speak louder than words – not that Cerezo’s were exactly full-committal – and club presidents, particularly in Spain, are no strangers to exaggeration to improve their popularity. But Atletico desperately need a frontman after offloading Jackson Martinez to the Chinese Super League last month, especially with their twelve-month transfer embargo looming in, so regardless of whether it’s Costa or someone else, the €42million received from Guangzhou Evergrande will be devoted almost exclusively to signing one in the summer.
Why would Costa want to return to his former club, that he owes no particular loyalty to after firing them to the La Liga title and a Champions League final? It’s not as if he has unfinished business at Vincente Calderon – in fact, his summer 2014 departure felt like perfect timing, considering he helped take the Mattress Makers to just minutes from being crowned the kings of Europe. Could he really expect to achieve more in second spell with the Spanish side?
But there is no question Costa feels persecuted in England. He was dubbed a bad-boy before turning up in the Premier League and pundits, referees, the newspapers and most importantly of all, the opposition, have refused to let that label dissolve. No doubt, there is a spiteful and insidious side to the 27-year-old’s game, but reputation has unequivocally affected how the aforementioned behave towards him.
Take the ‘bite’ that never happened on Saturday. Gareth Barry said there was no bite, Diego Costa said there was no bite and the referee did not punish him for a bite, yet the word was still slapped on the middle of every back page (by more reputable newspapers in inverted commas) the following morning.
He’s now facing a further one-game suspension for essentially being very angry at Michael Oliver for sending him off (by no means the first footballer to do so) and another for a gesture made to the crowd, from the same FA who refused to punish Ashley Barnes for that disgusting challenge on Nemanja Matic last season. It seems there is a separate standard for treating Costa, significantly less forgiving than that of his counterparts.
That has allowed opposing defenders to target Costa. Barry’s first notable act during Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final was an early challenge from behind to ‘let the striker know he was there’ to quote the old adage, and not so long ago against Watford the feisty frontman was issued a yellow card after minimal contact saw Juan Carlos Parades plummet to the floor. Referee Mike Dean instantly took a no-nonsense approach, despite clearly not witnessing the incident fully, wasting no time in booking Costa and the Hornets’ Tom Daley impersonator.
Before you ask – no, I’m not a Chelsea fan. And of course, any pejorative reputation lingering over Costa, caricatured or not, remains largely his own creation. But the 6 foot 2 striker didn’t receive that kind of negative attention in Spain, or at least never to the same degree, and any volatility on the pitch was mirrored by manager Diego Simeone on the touchline – who almost instigated a 30-man brawl as his exhausted Atleti ran out of steam in extra time of the 2014 Champions League final.
Chants of ‘Diego’ from the Stamford Bridge faithful continue to reassure that occasional hot-headedness is forgiven, but the level of commitment behind them has notably waned this season, especially after Costa was deemed partly culpable for the sacking of Jose Mourinho, a man the Blues fanbase cherish infinitely more.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Chelsea would actually sell and for how much. Let’s not forget that Costa is a brilliant striker, a rare combination of physicality, aggression and technique, especially in the one-up-front role that now dominates world football, and barring injury will finish up as the club’s top scorer for a second consecutive season. Likewise, top-class centre-forwards are incredibly scarce at the moment; the Blues would be loathed to part with one of the best in the business without a replacement lined up first and considerable compensation from Atletico.
But the Brazil-born striker has proved time and again that he’s a liability when not at the top of his game and that must be playing on the minds of the Stamford Bridge hierarchy as his former club’s interest continues to grow. Combine that with a harrowing disciplinary record – twenty yellow cards over the last two seasons and a potential third retrospective ban – and recurring hamstring problems that just won’t go away, and there are obvious incentives to trade in the 10-cap international for a more dependable, less erratic model.
Additionally, Chelsea look set to welcome a new manager in Antonio Conte who will have his own philosophy, ideas and preferred signings. No manager in world football is in a position to simply discard a striker of Costa’s quality and there is nothing concrete to suggest he will, but the Italian’s Juventus sides were hardly famed for their utilisation of old-fashioned centre-forwards.
Of course, this article contains speculation and guestimation, as any discussion of a potential transfer inevitably does. But the Spanish and English press share a consensus of Costa never truly settling in west London and with Chelsea embarking upon a new chapter under Conte, a combination of the aforementioned factors could well come to a head this summer.