Steven Da Costa: Cristiano is an out-and-out champion

  • Steven Da Costa is a world and Olympic champion in karate

  • The Frenchman is also a huge football fan

  • Da Costa shares his favourite football memories and admiration for Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo

Every elite athlete aims to be the best, a status that French karateka Steven Da Costa has achieved with his fists and his feet.

Already a French, European and world champion by the time he represented his country at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 last summer, he added a gold medal to his glittering CV. Not content with that, he claimed the men’s 67kg world title for a second time in Dubai a few days ago.

Few are better placed than Da Costa, then, to discuss the arduous path to the top, which is why spoke to him ahead of upcoming The Best FIFA Football Awards. A keen player of the game, the talented karateka discussed his passion for football, the champion player who has inspired him to reach the heights, and how a gift from a leading footballer almost eclipsed his Olympic gold. You’ve won everything there is to win in your sport. How do you stay motivated? Steven Da Costa: There’s always something else to win, even if it’s only a bonus on top of what you’ve already done. Winning the lot is great, but the goal is to win as many times as you can. Once is great; twice is better. I’m proud of what I’ve done and if things stop working out for me tomorrow, I’ll still have done what I set out to do in the big events.

How does it feel to be the best in your sport? Is it special to think that there’s no one better than you in a world of eight billion people? It’s not something I think about. I train for it. I do what I have to do and I’m happy with it, but it’s not something I give any thought to at competitions and events. Even when it’s all over I don’t sit there and think about what it means to be the best, because it’s sport and that’s what I train for: to win and be the best in every bout and every competition. I honestly don’t contemplate what it means to be at the top.

Athletes have to make a lot of sacrifices to get there. Which have you made? The same as any other athlete: you’re never around for things and you don’t have much time to spend on doing fun stuff, friends, and going out. You really miss all that. Those are huge sacrifices already, but on top of that you have to sort of kill yourself in training. You have to go through the pain barrier all year long, in every sense. And in combat sports you also have to think about your diet. It gets very tiring, but those are the sacrifices you have to make to reach the top.

teven da Costa of France (L) competes against Darkhan Assadilov of Kazakhstan competes during the men s kumite -67kg semifinal of karate at Tokyo 2020 Olympic

Is motivation different in combat sports? Lots of sports are about ‘playing’ but karate is about ‘fighting’. Do you need to be a bit nasty, to get a little angry? My first source of motivation is my family. My two brothers and I are all in the France team, which definitely helps when it comes to staying motivated and focused. Pride also comes into it. As for anger, it just depends on the people. For a while there, I tried to motivate myself by getting angry but it didn’t really work. It has to come naturally. It’s not the same if you just try and get into the habit of it. It doesn’t work for me. It’s not in my make-up. I need to have fun because it is just sport. I need to get enjoyment out of it. If you’re too worked up, in a negative way, you lose that sense of fun a little. You’re not yourself anymore and you miss out.

Let’s move on to football. Tell us about your relationship with the game. I’ve played football for a long time and I’ve always enjoyed playing it more than watching it. It’s been one competition after another lately, so it’s been a while since I’ve played, but I do enjoy it. Football is a big part of life in my family, starting with my mum, who’s a massive France fan. She’s very patriotic and she watches more football than me. I watch the big tournaments, like the World Cup, the Champions League and the Euros, but I don’t follow the day-to-day stuff that closely.

In reply to a tweet from Antoine Griezmann congratulating him on his Olympic title, Steven jokingly asked the Bleus striker if he could send him a shirt for his mother, who is a big fan.

Your mother also got something out of your Olympic gold: a shirt from FIFA World Cup™ winner Antoine Griezmann. She was even happier than me. I’d only just won the medal and there she was, asking me if he’d replied to my message yet. I had to calm her down and reassure her. When I told her he’d got back to me, she didn’t talk about anything else. It was more important than my competition and the shirt was more important than my medal (laughs). I didn’t know Antoine and I just wrote to him off the cuff. I’d seen that he was watching the Olympics and was congratulating all the French athletes. I was surprised by his generosity and how nice he was. He sent us two shirts. He doesn’t do things by half. We’ve messaged each other a few times since then, but the season’s back up and running again and we’re both busy.

What’s your favourite football memory? The 2018 World Cup – what else? I watched the lot and I felt so proud. When France win we all win, every French person. They were top of the pile. It’s my happiest memory because I was only one in 1998 [when France won their first World Cup].

You know how it feels to wear the France jersey. Do you think that means you experience the team’s successes in a different way to the fans in the street? Not really. I understand the sacrifices and the work that goes into it, but there’s sport and then there’s football. They’re two different worlds. Football’s a different thing entirely. Winning the World Cup is huge. More people play football than any other sport in the world and the standard is so high. It’s so hard to win a trophy in football. It’s difficult for me to imagine being in their place so I just follow it like any other fan. I’m not an expert on it. Compared to what I do, team sports are on another dimension.

What are your first football memories? I was between eight and 13. I played football for a long time and I loved it. I got to the stage, though, where I had to make a choice. I was playing too much sport. And I choose karate because the whole family did it, which made it a stronger connection. It was tough to give up, though.

Who’s your favourite team? I’m a big France fan but I don’t really support a club. There wasn’t a big club that appealed to me where I lived, in my region. For the last few years, though, I’ve been cheering on Real Madrid because of Cristiano Ronaldo.

The best player of the year will be announced at The Best FIFA Football Awards in a few weeks. Who’s your favourite for it? The man who’s always at the top: Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s always maintained his standards wherever he’s played, all the way through his career. I don’t think he’ll win it this year, but I hope he does. You look at his career, how professional he is, and his lifestyle, and you can see that he’s a real sportsman, a true champion. I’m not in his league. I’m not a model athlete. I train hard, that’s for sure, and I’ve got the drive, but when it comes to lifestyle I’m not exactly an example to follow (laughs). But everyone’s different. I don’t think it would work for me, but it does for some. He’s just an out-and-out champion.

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