Rui Costa: the slick prince who became a king in Italy

Rui Costa’s footballing life can be summed up by one goal and the few moments that followed it. In August 1996 in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, Benfica lined up against Fiorentina for their presentation match. This was a pre-season game with no real value, besides the fact that it was the first time Rui Costa played here as a visitor.

Rui Costa received the ball from his Argentine team-mate Gabriel Batistuta on the edge of the box in the final minute. Gliding past the Benfica defence, he remembered taking it through ‘the midst of my friends’ – his fellow countrymen Hélder Cristóvão and Dimas Teixeira – before subtly flicking the ball over Belgian goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme, who closed the gap to within inches between them. The only space left was exactly where the ball ended up.

His instant reaction to his own beguiling display of attack was to walk away from the scene of the crime. As his team-mates wheeled over in congratulations, his emotions got the better of him – it was consolation that Costa needed. He returned to his half covering his tearful face.

Benfica had been his life since the age of five, and his reaction was like hearing from a loved one over the phone after leaving home for the first time – overwhelmed to hear the familiarity and comfort of their voice. When the final whistle blew he walked over to the Benfica supporters and threw his shirt into the crowd, applauded them, then left. This moment, from the goal to the tears to the shirt, was fleeting, yet it summed up the cornerstones of Rui Costa – vision, style, passion and loyalty.

Costa, with his olive skin and slicked back hair, encapsulated the Portuguese feeling of saudade, which roughly translates to a feeling of longing or melancholy, in that moment. As he parted from his fans painfully and abruptly, to prevent further damage, he returned to Florence to continue his dominant spell at Fiorentina under Claudio Ranieri.

Costa’s sense of humbleness is largely down to his upbringing in Amadora, a municipality several miles to the north-west of Lisbon and a city unto itself. It’s Portugal’s most densely populated ‘city’ and remains relatively unchanged from Costa’s youth. It’s no surprise that a tough place breeds tough people, with a young Renato Sanches and Nani coming from nearby. Rui Costa’s parents, able to move anywhere in the country, or even world, still reside in Alfragide, a stone’s throw from where Costa was born. It could be said that his humble spirit comes from them.

His sense of loyalty follows a similar narrative. Rui Costa, born in 1972, played in the red shirt of Benfica from 1977. Practically born into the club, he was first spotted by Benfica and Portugal’s greatest hero Eusébio at the age of five and continued to develop in their youth system for 13 years before heading out on a season-long loan to the northern side AD Fafe, returning swiftly to Benfica, hitting the ground running.

Futsal is popular in both Brazil and Portugal, a five-a-side indoor game that uses a smaller and heavier ball with reduced bounce. This allows players to develop their fundamentals like passing and first touch; without them on the smaller pitches, the game would become static and messy. The first touch allows the player to absorb the ball in a tight space without giving it away, as every square inch is prime real estate.

Secondly, with this lack of space, passing is the key tool in opening up the play, so they must be accurate, dynamic and direct. Pelé sees futsal as a potent formative instrument in football development: ‘’It makes you think and play fast. It makes everything easier when you switch to football.’’ In the confines of futsal, one wrong move can be costly.

The influence this had on Rui Costa from his youth in Portugal manifested from his early days. The ball seems heavy when it arrives at his feet and light when it leaves. These characteristics can be seen on a variety of players influenced by futsal, from Messi, Ronaldinho, Coutinho and both Ronaldos. Even in his youth at Benfica, he was emerging as one of the most exciting and promising players that Portugal had ever produced.



In Italy, Fiorentina were building a formidable side. A sleeping giant was about to wake up in the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, with the club’s recent signings, Brian Laudup, Francesco Baiano and Gabriel Batistuta, helping them gain promotion to Serie A. Rui Costa signed in 1994 to aid them on their return to the top-flight. They were all set up for their own Renaissance with Claudio Ranieri at the helm.

In a league full of world-class number 10s, Costa quickly emerged as the preeminent alongside Zinedine Zidane, after taking over the shirt from Roberto Baggio, no small task in itself. With beguiling grace and mesmerising artistry, he was the fully packaged playmaker, capable of making a palace out of paper and tape. In a team that was lacking in defence and didn’t fare much better in the middle, Batistuta and Costa were an attacking phenomenon, zigging in a league that chose to zag.

Their telepathic bond quickly consolidated them as the Serie A’s most formidable and iconic duo, the complete number 9 and 10. Their partnership was not unlike Manchester United’s Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. They were brothers-in-arms, with the instinct of a killer and the mesmerising quality of two virtuoso talents running wild. Italian football is traditionally conservative and defence-minded, but the Florentine side built their mid-1990s success on the strength of their attack.

Together, the duo not only won two Coppa Italias and one Supercoppa Italiana, but they looked great doing it. Costa will be remembered as much for what he achieved as for how he achieved it. The way he played looked effortless, and in a way it became so over time, but it was his work-rate and football academy upbringing that nurtured his talent. The way he looked on the park might have seemed effortless too, but that wasn’t the case.

The Italian’s call it sprezzatura, making something look like no thought or effort went into it, when in fact, it had. Before a game, everything had to sit right – the oil in the hair, the tape under the knee, the rolled down socks and the half tucked-in shirt. He was the embodiment of Italian football style, giving him the reckless air of a true maverick roaming the field. His style would influence a whole generation of young boys that watched Football Italia religiously every weekend, glued to their screens and trying to emulate him at their local park.

His style served a purpose; when everything sat right, what happened on the pitch became instinctual. His pre-match rituals freed his mind, allowing him to operate on what often seemed like a subconscious level on the park. This nonchalance combined with his passion made him an enigmatic player with a devoted cult following at Fiorentina. From the city once run by the Medici family and strategized in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, it was fitting that the man who was the apotheosis of footballing grace and tactical craft would come to be known as The Prince of Florence, and when Batistuta left for Rome in 2000, he was the heir to the captain’s throne.

Whenever Rui Costa had the ball, there was a feeling that anything could happen, such was the unpredictable nature of his game. His trenchant passes came a second before it was anticipated, wrong-footing many defenders and goalkeepers with its’ off-beat syncopated timing. This was best exemplified when Portugal took on England at Euro 2000. Down 2-0 early on in the match, Costa came alive with his wizardry of spherical physics assisting three goals to provide the win. The third through ball that set up Nuno Gomes was of vision and precision rarely witnessed since the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.

In 2001, then-manager of Fiorentina Fatih Terim, or Imperatore, took over at AC Milan, bringing Costa with him for just under €44 million, an offer Fiorentina couldn’t refuse given their own financial difficulties. Costa would swap Batistuta for Filippo Inzaghi and Inzaghi would swap Zinedine Zidane for Costa, who made a comment on signing for his new club that Costa was the superior player to Zidane, an eternal debate in Italian football, similar to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi now. Costa and Zidane played similar roles, and there is no questioning Zidane’s genius throughout his career, but in their heyday in the Serie A, it was Costa that seemed to excite and appeal on a more visceral level. Where Zidane played from his head, Costa played from his heart and that resonated deeply with Italian fans.

Italian football lives and dies by their defence, a philosophy developed since time immemorial by managers like Helenio Herrera and lauded by classic calcio writers like Gazzetto dello Sport’s Gianni Brera. Milan were solid at the back with Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta, but it was Costa’s job to add some attacking flair to the famous defender’s grit. The north of Italy already had Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and now it had Rui Costa. He was the gleaming paint job, the roar of the engine and the effortless blur in the eyes of defenders.

In Milan he picked up another nickname, Il Maestro, alluding to the leader of a classical music ensemble or opera. The thing is, he wasn’t so much the classical conductor as he was the spontaneous jazz musician. He roved free without restraints, abiding to no particular time signature nor scale, inhabiting a number 10 role that has seen a steady decline in the last decade, making way for a more central attacking role for the number.

Rui Costa’s time at the Rossoneri never quite reached the hoped-for peaks that were expected from a superstar entering a supercharged squad, but by no means was it a failed venture. During his time there he managed to add more silverware to his personal collection, including a Champion’s League trophy in 2003.

Rui Costa came up against Zidane, as part of Real Madrid’s Galácticos, in the group stage of the tournament. Milan won the group, thanks in part to a 1-0 home win that featured Rui Costa’s fan-favourite pass. Before the stroke of half-time and behind his own centre circle, his picked out a solo Andriy Shevchenko with a heat seeking pass along the ground, splitting the four defenders in their own half that could never have anticipated the move. His seeming prescience of the movements of his own and opposing team-mates marked him as one of a kind – at the time he was the best passer of a football in the world.

Unfortunately, his overall impact at the club was limited by a recurring injury and the arrival of Kaká, who was favoured over Costa to sit behind the attack, pushing him into a deeper playmaking role with Andrea Pirlo. He still made an impression when he had the chance but any consistency was hard to come by in a particularly strong Milan squad. Even though he left the club with 65 assists to his name, by his own admission, he just wasn’t clinical enough in front of goal and wasn’t as natural as Pirlo in the deeper role.

Being effective in front of goal requires balance and a methodological approach that was at odds with Costa’s style. He was unconventional and insouciant, which doesn’t often translate to consistency, but is exhilarating to watch unfold. His body jived into impossible positions like a lithe gazelle trying to avoid the claws of the lion. Until, that is, the opportunity presented itself for the hunted to become the hunter. He would either make an impossible pass or, when he did hit the ball well, score the calibre of goal that very few players could lay claim to.

Costa was instrumental to Portugal’s golden generation squad, alongside Luís Figo and João Pinto. The team had gotten to the quarter-finals of Euro 96, the semi-final of Euro 2000 and were expected to win the tournament on their home turf in 2004.

In the semi-final, Portugal headed into extra-time against England with the score level at 1-1. Costa picked up the ball a couple of feet into England’s half on a swift counter-attack, looking to make a pass, but there were no viable options. He kept the ball close to his feet and burst forwards towards the edge of England’s box, quickly glancing over at Simão, who was too heavily marked. Costa looked up one final time and let loose an uncompromisingly crisp right foot strike, catching the underside of the bar on the shots upwards trajectory, beating David James. Portugal won on penalties but lost to Greece in the final, and what could have been a crowning moment in Rui Costa’s international career ended with heartbreak.



Costa once made a promise to return to Lisbon and Benfica. In 2006 he made good on that promise, eschewing a €4.6 million annual contract in Milan to return home. Players of Costa’s particular style have an ephemeral quality that characterises their career by the fleeting moments of magnificence, compared to one built on consistency. So after setting Italy alight for over 10 years, would he be able to make any impact at Benfica?

In purely footballing terms, Costa’s best years were behind him in Florence, but on returning to Benfica his presence was incandescent. This isn’t to say that he offered nothing to the quality of play; quite the contrary. He was consistent throughout his first season back, helping Benfica to a third place finish, behind Porto and Sporting.

At the beginning of the 2007-08 season, his two-goal contribution against FC Copenhagen saw Benfica through to the Champions League, breaking from their recent spell of bad luck. Unfortunately for the fans, they knew their time together was limited; at the start of the season he had announced his retirement from the club at the end of the campaign, and after every goal or game, he would make his way over to his fans to thank them, ever more sagacious in his latter years.

After retirement Rui Costa became Benfica’s Director of Football. Jorge Jesus, the clubs’ former manager, remarked: “The future of football at Benfica passes through Rui Costa or no one.” It’s clear that everyone at the club understands his role and he was instantly responsible for bringing in Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar and Jorge Jesus himself. Many fans hope that he will forever remain at the club, eventually as president.

During his playing days it was his hero Michel Platini who was often used as a benchmark of comparison. Nowadays, Rui Costa is viewed as one of the players who is beyond comparison – a footballing Beatle. Costa is often overlooked in the greats of modern football. Indeed, when you talk about the best players of all-time, he is seldom mentioned, but when his name comes up, few disagree.

He played in a way that reminded us how beautiful football can be. Players like that don’t seem to fit into any system – they are happy enough to run parallel to it and we are happy enough just to watch them. When he walked off of the pitch for the final time at the Estádio da Luz, a great many fans cried, such was the ineffable effect of the player who wasn’t quite like anyone else 

By Edd Norval



The boss and Gabriel Paletta had their say speaking to Milan TV after the match

The Red and Black manager, Vincenzo Montella, had his say to Milan TV and at the press conference after the 2-1 win over Fiorentina at San Siro.

“It’s a very important win, against a team who played a really good game and gave us a hard time. Fiorentina are a strong side. Thanks to these 3 points we continue our race for the Europa League, our objective, and we lead in the head-to-head against our direct rivals Fiorentina and Lazio. The team, the staff and I want to dedicate this win to President Silvio Berlusconi: we don’t know if this was his last game at San Siro, but we really want to dedicate it to him”.


“He’s always there for us and he’s serene. He probably is a bit sad that his history with AC Milan is coming to an end, but he should be proud of what he has done for AC Milan and football, of how much he has contributed to of this club’s wins and to making it one of the greatest in history”.

“Bacca played a superb game. He showed the right attitude and if he keeps it up he’ll be soon scoring again. He won back the ball that then gave us the goal for 2-1, he pressed his opponents and played for the team. The fans booed at him? I don’t think they were all for him, but he has to get used to similar situations and it has to be an incentive to always give more and more. Sosa? He’s improving a lot, he’s got great talent. He still has to get used to this position but I am really pleased with his performance”.

“We played a good 45′. We were aggressive and created many chances. We could have scored more in the first half, it would have been easier. In the second 45′ the game changed, we didn’t manage to press high up the pitch and I decided to bring on a defender. Playing this way, Fiorentina didn’t shoot once. The only time was with a free-kcik. We had 5 players of the national team put injured, plus Calabria and Locatelli on the bench: we lacked alternatives, we suffered but this win has a sweet taste. I can’t blame the boys for nothing, I saw the right attitude”.


“I didn’t want to change 2 midfielders, we needed to be aggressive, therefore the only solution was to add a defender”.

“Poli? it looks like it’s just a bump. I don’t think Kucka has any problem”.

“I like to think about the present, the current management. I don’t want to waste energy on things I don’t know and I can’t decide. I am not asking myself any question. I don’t talk about this and I don’t hear anyone talking about it, I’ve been hearing rumours for months now: this change would make it into history. Let’s wait and see”.

“Friday’s dinner brought good luck. I promised the boys that I would take them out for another if we won against Fiorentina, so it looks like I’ll have to pay. That’s if they’re OK with it…”.

Gabriel Paletta: “We usually score in the second half, today we did something different. Fiorentina are a very good team, we won the game and it was not easy at all”. A comment on the match: “We faced an opponent of great quality. In the second half, we were less clear-minded and it was hard to keep possession. It was important that we stuck together, we reacted and managed to take home this precious win”. In the final minutes of the game, the boss fielded the team with a 3-5-2: “It wasn’t something we worked on during the week, the boss decided to field the team like this and for us, it was not a problem. We accept his decisions and always do our best”. Our direct rivals keep winning: “The teams that are in front of us are doing well and are not missing a beat, that’s why today’s win is so important”.

Milan-Fiorentina, Montella: “Una bella vittoria per Berlusconi”

Il tecnico rossonero: “Abbiamo sofferto, ma non ricordo loro tiri in porta. Tutto il mondo del calcio deve dire grazie al presidente”

Vincenzo Montella si gode i tre punti conquistati con la Fiorentina, che considera meritati. “Questa è una vittoria meritata contro una squadra forte che ci ha fatto soffrire. Hanno tenuto la palla per il 70% nel secondo tempo ma non ricordo tiri in porta. Noi abbiamo deciso di stare dietro e cercare di ripartire in contropiede anche se non ci siamo riusciti. E’ una vittoria che ci riempie d’orgoglio perché ci lascia in scia per l’Europa. Con le dirette concorrenti per l’Europa per il momento non abbiamo mai perso, il cammino è ancora lungo e dovremo soffrire ancora. Non voglio alibi e non voglio rifugiarmi in scuse ma abbiamo 5 nazionali italiani fuori per infortuni, quindi questo dà ancora più meriti ai ragazzi. Forse psicologicamente la squadra ha subito il ricordo delle sconfitte immeritate contro Udinese e Samp, ma questa vittoria vale di più perché era uno scontro diretto”.
PER SILVIO — La dedica in questo caso è quasi d’obbligo. “L’ultima gara del Milan di Berlusconi a San Siro? Non so se sarà davvero così ma la squadra vuole dedicare questa vittoria al Presidente e a questa dirigenza. Siamo contenti di aver fatto questo piccolo regalo. Galliani viene sempre prima delle partite e dopo, era sereno e si è complimentato con noi. Il calcio mondiale deve tanto a Berlusconi e alle sue idee. Il Milan probabilmente è la squadra italiana più conosciuta nel mondo, è quella più vincente nel mondo, possiamo solo dire grazie a Berlusconi e alla sua storia. Se mi aspetto una sua chiamata? Io ho sempre il telefono acceso anche se oggi ha avuto un black out prima della gara. Per me è sempre un piacere parlargli. La prova di Bacca? A me è piaciuto, è stato presente e ha aiutato tanto la squadra. Rispetto alle ultime uscite mi è piaciuto molto di più. Questa è la strada giusta, deve andare avanti così. Perché il cambio di Deulofeu? A livello tattico poteva stare in campo più lui rispetto ad altri ma avevo la necessità di inserire un altro difensore”.

Milan-Fiorentina 2-1: Deulofeu decide, in gol anche Kucka e Kalinic

Lo spagnolo segna il primo gol in rossonero e risolve contro i viola, dopo il botta e risposta tra lo slovacco e il croato. Palo di Pasalic. Montella resta in corsa per la zona coppe


Gerard Deulofeu festeggia con Mario Pasalic. Getty

Gerard Deulofeu festeggia con Mario Pasalic. Getty

Per i due allenatori, ma solo per loro, non era una sfida decisiva per l’Europa. La classifica dice altro e dopo lo scontro diretto a rimanere attaccato al treno è il Milan: 2-1 alla Fiorentina. Risolve Deulofeu, al primo, pesantissimo, gol in rossonero . Montella ritaglia nuovamente spazio al suo centravanti, Bacca, dopo l’esperimento del falso nove contro la Lazio. A sostenerlo ci sono Suso e Deulofeu, che anche rispostato in fascia mantiene la sua grande efficacia. Può essere l’ultima a San Siro dell’era Berlusconi ma Silvio non si vede: in tribuna si sgola il solito Galliani. La Fiorentina ha nelle gambe i 90’ di Europa League in Germania e Sousa improvvisa un turn over con postazioni inedite: a sinistra non c’è un terzino di ruolo ma l’adattato Salcedo e per ovviare alla squalifica di Bernardeschi (in tribuna a fianco di Antognoni e Diego Della Valle) cambia addirittura modulo. A sostenere Kalinic sono in tre: Chiesa, Ilicic e Cristoforo.
MILAN PUNGENTE — Montella conosce benissimo la Fiorentina, che ha ancora il suo marchio: tiene il possesso palla e cerca l’affondo vincente. I rossoneri giocano più di rimessa ma quando attaccano sono spesso pericolosi. Non tanto con Bacca, ancora fuori dalla manovra, ma con gli esterni offensivi, soprattutto con Deulofeu contenuto a fatica da Sanchez. Il primo brivido è una punizione di Sosa dopo 5 minuti che tocca la rete sopra la traversa. Per la Fiorentina replicano i tentativi da fuori area di Cristoforo e Borja Valero. Si gioca a ritmi sostenuti, con rapidi capovolgimenti di fronte. Il Milan è ben istruito: aspetta e poi colpisce. Succede al 16’: da calcio piazzato Sosa mette in area dove ha la meglio la testa di Kucka, che infila Tatarusanu all’angolino. Colpevole Astori, che perde la marcatura, e beffato anche Vecino, che si aggirava in zona. Il vantaggio rossonero dura però pochino, e cioè fino al 20′, quando Borja Valero non serve Chiesa sulla destra (in leggero fuorigioco) che pesca in mezzo Kalinic: stavolta è la punta viola a bruciare Gomez e Donnarumma. Per il terzo gol si devono aspettare altri dieci minuti: stavolta Borja Valero, fin lì abbastanza padrone del gioco, sbaglia il disimpegno e apre una corsia a Deulofeu. Il piattone destro dell’ex canterano è precisissimo: gol e festa con il pollice in bocca per la figlia Sara in arrivo. Il resto del tempo rispetta il copione: la reazione viola è un colpo di testa di Gonzalo Rodriguez su punizione di Ilicic ma va molto più vicino il Milan al tris con un palo di Pasalic.
CONTROLLO — La ripresa perde parte della velocità del primo tempo, anche se resta vivace. Al 7’ un episodio fa infuriare la Fiorentina: Gomez stende Kalinic lanciato in porta e per il rossonero è semplice giallo. Sulla punizione successiva Ilicic non riesce a essere pericoloso, come nel resto della sua partita e come molti dei suoi compagni. La Fiorentina tiene molto la palla ma fatica a creare vere azioni da gol. La squadra di Sousa gioca sia in verticale che chiamando in causa gli esterni ma la situazione non cambia. Al Milan basta essere attento e ordinato per non soffrire troppo. Ad andare più vicino al gol è così un difensore, Sanchez, che alza da due passi una punizione di Borja Valero. Per la possibile rimonta la Fiorentina si affida a Badelj, Tello e Saponara mentre a Montella basta inserire Zapata, Bertolacci e Poli per avere una squadra ancora più coperta e solida. San Siro fischia Bacca che spreca in contropiede e poi in ribattuta su un tiro di Abate. Nemmeno i cinque minuti di recupero cambiano la situazione: il Milan vince e vede la zona Europa, per la Fiorentina la classifica è più buia.