Though there are thousands of teenagers across the world who play football every day for local clubs, doing their very best to imitate their idols and imagining a life of football stardom, very few would be willing to leave their homelands with little more than the shirts on their back. Yet that is exactly what Valencia’s Argentinian midfielder 'Tino' Costa did back in late 2000 at the age of 15, leaving everything behind to try his luck in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe.
Giving fate a helping hand
Unlike many of his fellow countrymen plying their trade on the Old Continent, this classy left-footer with excellent distribution, superb set-piece delivery and an eye for goal did not emerge from the youth ranks of an Argentinian professional side. In fact, the midfielder, whose full name is Alberto Facundo Costa, was playing for neighbourhood club La Terraza in his hometown of Las Flores in Buenos Aires province when a doctor friend made him the offer that would change his life.
“He had a clinic on Guadeloupe and they’d asked him if he knew any players who might have something to offer to football on the island,” said Costa in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “A few days before I’d been on trial at Estudiantes de La Plata, but they’d barely given me a second glance. So, as I had nothing else on the horizon, I accepted the offer.”
Upon joining up with amateur side Racing Club Basse-Terre, the ambitious youngster set himself some lofty and very specific goals. “First I wanted to learn French really well, and secondly I wanted to try my hand in a kind of football that differed from the Argentinian game. After that my plan was to wait and see, though deep down I always felt it’d be possible to make the leap to France or another European country,” said Tino, whose nickname comes from his granddad, who dubbed him Faustino after a soap opera character, and his mother, who preferred the short version of this nickname.
However, despite his abundant ability and hunger to succeed, the move to the Lesser Antilles was still something of a culture shock. “It was a beautiful place and the climate was ideal, but I didn’t speak French and I was on my own. At first there were days when I’d just want to go home, but between football and school I managed to cope,” he recalled. “Moving in with a local family also helped, because they had children my age and they paid my schooling costs. But there wasn’t much money to go around and nobody from Argentina could send me any, so I got a job in a supermarket to get by.”
And how was the football scene on the island? “I had no problems on that score. We’d get a lot of scouts coming to see us - it was a really intense experience. In 2003 I went on trial at both Auxerre and Lyon but didn’t end up staying. And in 2004, after getting to a couple of finals with my team, Racing Club de Paris came in for me. I’d given myself three years (to earn a move to Europe), and as that time was up I didn’t need to give it much thought.”
Even so, heading to Paris meant yet another fresh start for Costa. “I went from a warm climate to a cold one and from a coastal town to a European capital, as well as being on my own again. At least I spoke the language by then though” Costa added, before touching on the footballing side of his latest move. “I’d been playing at very much an amateur level, so making the move to a semi-professional third division was a big step up. Even in training you realised the game was being played at a whole new pace. Fortunately I got to grips with it and started nearly 30 games in my first season, 2004/05.”
The next stop on his roundabout tour to the top was Pau FC, where he played 66 games and scored four goals before a move to fellow third-tier outfit FC Sete. It was there where he switched from the left wing to central midfield, a positional change that has been key to his rapid rise. “In my second year there, we came close to winning promotion to Ligue 2 and I received seven offers from teams in that division,” said Costa. "In the end I opted for Montpellier."
His adaption to life at a higher level was seamless, with the gifted midfielder an integral figure in his club’s successful promotion campaign in only his first season with La Paillade in 2008/09. “On the final day of the season we came up against Racing Club de Strasbourg, who only needed a draw to secure promotion. We needed to win and we did it, with me scoring one goal from a free-kick and setting up another.”
A plea to Batista
Even after making it to the French top flight, Costa still felt he had plenty more to prove. “As I sat in the away dressing room after my first game in Ligue 1, I realised that all the sacrifices I’d made had paid off – not that it gave me the right to rest on my laurels.” And after his performances for Montpellier earned him a big-money move to Spanish heavyweights Valencia in the summer of 2010, Costa continues to look onwards and upwards: “If you stand still for a moment here (in La Liga) you’ll get chewed up and spat out, so I work constantly to improve my game and I focus on the future.”
And though Costa took his time to win a regular first-team berth for Los Chés, a host of strong displays and stunning goals have earned him the trust of coach Unai Emery. “French football is stronger and more physical. Spanish football, in contrast, is more about building from the back, moving the ball about and using short, quick combinations. They’re different styles and you need time to adapt,” explained Tino, who bears a tattoo of Diego Maradona’s signature, is a fervent admirer of ex-Real Madrid legend Fernando Redondo and who dreams of one day returning to his homeland to play for San Lorenzo.
Before that, however, Costa has plenty more he wishes to achieve on European soil. Not least in the UEFA Champions League where, despite “being capable of going a long way”, Valencia fell short against Bundesliga outfit Schalke at the Round of 16 stage of this season’s competition.
The midfielder also harbours international ambitions, as he stated with the interview drawing to a close. “In my opinion, [Sergio] Batista has been calling up the best players in my position. But if I was him I’d give me a chance! (laughs). I’m not saying I should start but I think I ought to be in the squad, if only to reflect the way I’ve been playing at club level.”