Remembering the Maestro

Intelligence, elegance, grace, artistry, creativity. All would be fitting nouns to describe Manuel Rui Costa.

Rui Costa was a true superstar of his generation and has to go down as one of the best number 10’s in history alongside such illustrious company as Michel Platini, Johan Cryuff, Maradona and Zinedine Zidane.

Many will say he underachieved but the Portuguese had all the prerequisites to be one of the best trequartistas in the modern game. Costa’s creativity meant he was one of the most feared playmakers during his spell in Serie A with Fiorentina and A.C Milan.

The underachievement school of thought may well be true, but no-one can doubt that the gifted playmaker was loyal to his clubs and could have won many more honours had this not been the case – a loyalty that is sometimes lacking in the modern game.

Long before his transfer to Fiorentina, Rui Costa was a superstar in his homeland after being spotted as a five-year-old by another Portuguese legend Eusébio. It took the Black Panther just 10 minutes – a fitting number considering his future shirt number to see the potential in the youngster and sign him up for Lisbon giants Benfica.

Costa rose through the ranks of the Eagles and in his first full season as a professional was loaned to AD Fafe who he helped to a second place finish in the Third tier of Portuguese football. The player’s performances for the team based in Northern Portugal resulted in a call up to the Under-21 squad alongside names such as Luís Figo and João Pinto that competed at the FIFA Youth World Championships, a precursor of the Under-20 World Cup.

Defending champions Portugal were the hosts and one of the favourites for the tournament after winning the Saudi Arabia edition just two years prior.  The tournament boasted some wonderful teams and players including Dwight Yorke, Paolo Montero, Giovane Élber, Andy Cole, and future star Roberto Carlos who would all go on to have successful careers but Portugal were not to be denied their championship.

Portugal secured victory against Brazil in front of 127,000 screaming fans at the Estádio da Luz. Rui Costa scored the winning penalty in the final after a 0-0 stalemate with their South American cousins to become a national hero.

On returning to Lisbon, the midfielder started to play a more important role in first team affairs which resulted in two trophies, a 5-2 Portuguese Cup triumph over Boavista in 1992/93 and the League in the following season; the last time Benfica would win a championship in over a decade.

It was a bittersweet end to his first stint at his boyhood club. Although the midfielder had secured two major trophies in two years, the club were under a lot of financial pressure and were forced to accept a bid of 1200 million escudos (about €6 million) from Serie A team Fiorentina after a moved to Barcelona collapsed.

The playmaker naturally lacked a bit of pace so the Italian game was the perfect match for the player. Serie A has traditionally been a little slower and more technical than some of Europe’s elite leagues which meant Costa was afforded the time on the ball to become the true midfield conductor that the fans grew to love.

If Serie A was the perfect style of football for Rui Costa, then Gabriel Batistuta was the perfect finisher to put the ball in the back to the net after receiving one of Costa’s defence-splitting passes.

Costa had the vision, touch and fast-thinking to endlessly open up the Italian defences for Batistuta to score. When the two were playing in tandem it was often a devastating day for opposition defences and it only took two years for them to win their first trophy together, the 1996 Coppa Italia where they overcame Atalanta 3-0 on aggregate with the Argentine picking up two goals.

Florence was also an excellent environment for the Portuguese to flourish. The Renaissance city is one of the birth places of fine art and that is what Costa’s football could be compared to on the Artemio Franchi pitch during his seven years in the city.

The Fiorentina fans held Costa in such regard that he was labelled “il Maestro di Fiorenze” – the Maestro of Florence – a nickname that even the most famous Florentines Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Donatello would have been proud to have been named.

It was only when Fiorentina got themselves into severe financial trouble that Costa left the club after year after year of speculation. A club record £28m bid from AC Milan in the summer of 2001 meant that he would join his Fiorentina coach Fatih Terim at the Rossoneri.

Whilst playing at the San Siro, Costa started to finally fill his trophy cabinet by winning the League, Cup and even Champions League in 2002/03 after overcoming Juventus at Old Trafford.

Although the cabinet was starting to fill, the midfielders playing time started to dwindle due to several factors most notably the emergence of Kaká who was signed from São Paulo in the summer of 2003.

Injuries didn’t help the midfielder’s cause but the performances of Kaká meant that Costa was often spending time on the bench. The trequartista role in a midfield that contained Pirlo as the regista behind Clarence Seedorf and Rino Gattuso was one that Ancelotti had to make a decision on.

It may have been a natural choice in replacing an aging Costa, but in putting his faith in Kaká was ultimately a decision that was justified as the player went on to win the Ballon d’Or in2007 and Ancelotti led the team to five major trophies including the Champions League on two occasions with the Brazilian as his main playmaking threat during his reign at the San Siro.

After five year stint with Milan, Rui Costa terminated his contract and with it a €4.6m per year salary and returned to boyhood club Benfica in 2006. The midfielder scored in his second appearance back but soon suffered an injury which kept him out for three months. Benfica finished third in the league in his homecoming season.

His second season with the club and final as a professional was played out under José Antonio Camacho and unfortunately for the player and club, couldn’t secure any silverware before his last game.

Costa played his final game as a professional on 11th May 2008 at the Estádio da Luz against Vitória de Setúbal. He was substituted in the 86th minute to a standing ovation from the fans to draw the curtains on a glittering career that will be remembered by all.

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