World Cup, Group B: ‘Traitor’ Diego Costa returns to Brazil


Spain's Diego Costa waves from the pitch during a promotional event, before the start of a training session at the Atletico Paranaense training center in Curitiba, Brazil, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Spain will play in group B of the Brazil 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

It's not unusual for players of Brazilian origin to don the uniforms of other national teams. Brazilian soccer players are a genuine national export: scan the leagues of countries around the world and you're bound to find some Brazilian plying his trade. Naturalized Brazilians have lined up for Poland, Japan, Mexico, Croatia, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea and Portugal, to name a few. This is rarely a source of disquiet: Brazil produces bucketloads of talented soccer players and the ones electing to play elsewhere do so knowing they likely will never have a chance to wear the yellow of the Seleção. That is, until this year.

Diego Costa, 25, is one of the top strikers in the world and a star with club side Atletico Madrid. Brazil could really use a forward of his dynamism. But though he is Brazilian, he will appear at the World Cup -- perhaps even on Friday, against the Netherlands -- in the red jersey of Spain. Late last year, when presented with the remarkably flattering choice to play for either his nation of origin or his new adopted  home -- Spain happen to be defending world champions -- he controversially chose the latter.

Costa has been based in Europe since he was a teenager and obtained Spanish citizenship. He was wooed aggressively by the Spanish soccer establishment and chose to ignore the call of his own country. FIFA rules make a player ineligible to compete for one nation if they've played in a competitive match with another, but Brazil only deployed Costa for meager spells in a few friendly matches.

"I am Brazilian and that is not going to change but I want to win the World Cup with Spain," he said at a recent press conference.

Tim Vickery, BBC's South America soccer correspondent, justifies Costa's decision as an act of 21st century globalism. Costa grew up in humble circumstances in an obscure part of the country. He was never lavished with the sort of attention, sponsorship and national adulation doled out to many of Brazil's top players. He made his own way to Europe and found a life and home there. "Now, well adapted to his new country and even with a Spanish daughter, Diego Costa would rather look forwards," Vickery argues.

The Spanish team itself is an object lesson in national refashioning. It stitches together a squad comprised largely of players from the country's two rival sporting and political centers: Real Madrid, once the team of the dictator Franco, and Barcelona, ever the beacon of Catalonian nationalism. When the Spanish anthem, the Royal March, is played, no words get sung -- a legacy of the country's transition back to an inclusive democracy. Costa fits appealingly into this context.

Brazilians, though, were stunned that a player could forsake such a prestigious, patriotic opportunity for a country across the pond. They reacted with unprecedented anger to Costa's supposed betrayal. "He is giving his back to what is the dream of millions, to represent the five-time world champions in a World Cup in Brazil," said national team manager Luis Felipe Scolari last year, soon after Costa made up his mind.

The rage at Costa was expressed in many forms, and by all sorts of people. A local Volkswagen ad bluntly blared: "Unlike Diego Costa, this car fills Brazilians with pride." A vulgar Twitter hashtag advising Costa to do something distasteful trended nationally in Brazil. This week, as he and the Spanish team trained in Curitiba, locals heckled him, calling him a "traitor."

This all may be a reflection of genuine nationalist sentiment. But it's also a product of fear: Spain has been the dominant force in the game for the past half decade and poses a big threat to the Brazilian dream of winning the World Cup on home ground.

Costa has a reputation for hot-headedness and one wonders whether he'll manage to keep his cool. Spain is drawn in an incredibly tricky group including the Netherlands -- the team they defeated in the final in South Africa 2010 -- and Chile, a dangerous side some suspect could be dark horses for the tournament. What team could they possibly face in the second round? Why, Brazil.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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