Rui Costa, a perfect ten
© AFP

Rui Manuel Cesar Costa, or Rui Costa as he is better known, has finally called time on his playing days after a long and distinguished career in Portugal and Italy. A playmaker blessed with an exquisite touch, the 36-year-old retires as one of the most outstanding No10s in the history of the game, excelling in a role slowly disappearing from the coaching manual.

Rumour has it that it was Portuguese legend Eusebio himself who first discovered Rui Costa and sent the youngster, then aged ten, to Benfica's training academy. What is certain is that the Lisbon native could have reached even loftier heights before hanging up his boots, despite collecting a total of 11 titles and scoring 132 goals in 776 matches. Brandishing superior technique, brilliant vision and a fearsome shot, he none the less goes down as Portugal's greatest playmaker - and the symbol of a golden generation.

Even as a youngster, Rui Costa knew the No10 shirt was for him. "It's always brought me luck," he said. "I've always wanted this number because my idols all wore it, Michel Platini especially. I'm a creative player and creativity is important on the pitch. It's what I prefer."

The wider world first began to get a hint of his emerging talent in 1991, when he steered Portugal to the FIFA U-20 World Cup title against a Brazil side featuring Roberto Carlos. Scorer of the decisive penalty in that match, his intelligence and artistry then helped Benfica win the Portuguese Cup in 1993 and the Portuguese championship a year later.

Those attributes soon sparked interest abroad, and Rui Costa went on to spend seven seasons with Fiorentina, where his success in orchestrating attacks persuaded his fellow professionals to name him best midfielder in Serie A on several occasions.

Painful memories
It was at AC Milan, though, that he truly began to experience success, after making the switch in 2001. A UEFA Champions League triumph over Juventus in 2003 and a scudetto the next year were the highlights of his spell, but he admits to still being haunted by the Rossoneri's incredible Champions League final loss to Liverpool in 2005. Despite having led by three goals at half time, Rui Costa and Co left Istanbul empty-handed following their penalty-shootout defeat. "That match is etched in my memory," he said. "Not just the loss, but the way we lost it. It was very difficult to get over that. It was one of the hardest moments of my career and that of my team-mates."

With Portugal, he contested three UEFA European Championships and a FIFA World Cup™, all of which ended in disappointment. The team fell narrowly short on each occasion and failed to make the most of a line-up brimming with gifted individuals. The failure against Greece on home soil at EURO 2004 was particularly painful: "Winning in Portugal would have been the highlight of my career. I'm proud of having reached the final but I'm really ashamed to have lost." So bitter was the experience, in fact, that Rui Costa ended his international career that night, withdrawing from the scene with 26 goals in 94 appearances.

Two years later, Rui Costa turned another page by returning to Benfica, prompting his former employers at Milan to issue a press release full of praise. "In Kaka's every touch, dear Rui, there will always be a part of you," it said, crediting the Portuguese ace for his influence on the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year.

With the 2007-08 campaign now over, he has opted to take up a fresh challenge after being named as Benfica's new sporting director. The job will put him in charge of the club's recruitment policy, and he is desperate to make the club so close to his heart "the best Portuguese team again".

"After 18 years in football, I've still got it in my blood," he said. "I'm not tired. I'm still as passionate as ever about being appreciated for what I did on the pitch, as well as off it. I think I've always been a good person. That counts too."