During the 1990s and early 2000s, Italy was the finest home for footballers in the world. Serie A was where the greatest players flocked to and one Portuguese star, in particular, lit up the European division with his ridiculous playmaking talent.
Rui Costa arrived in Italy in 1994 from Benfica, joining Fiorentina, and from then on, the man they called the ‘maestro’ starred for La Viola, and then for AC Milan, who he joined in 2001.
When we talk about Portugal’s finest players of the modern era, most minds cast to the obvious stars, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Deco, but Costa, with his slick, elegant demeanour would perhaps be the connoisseurs choice in a vote for the nation’s finest player.
He simply oozed class on the ball, had an eye for goal and could pick the lock of most defences with one eagle-eyed pass. Arriving in Florence with a reputation as one of the finest young midfielders in the game, Costa went on to become the talk of Calcio, outdoing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and establishing himself as the finest No.10 in the division.
The Portuguese playmaker had inherited his shirt from one Roberto Baggio, a player of such talent that his move from La Viola to Juventus sparked riots in Florence. However, once the club’s loyal fans saw the artistry of Costa, they knew the void left by the Italian legend had been filled.
Gennaro Gattuso, Salernitana & Manuel Rui Costa, Fiorentina, 1998/99 pic.twitter.com/QD0aznCLuU
— Classic Calcio (@ClassicCalcio) April 5, 2017
Much of the midfielder’s time in Italy is remembered for his almost telepathic understanding with Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentinian goal machine who fans aptly nicknamed ‘Batigol’. The two worked in tandem like few ever attacking partnerships ever have, cutting through stubborn Italian defences with guile and skill, making their on-field actions look almost effortless.
With the pair operating at such a level of excellence, Fiorentina picked up two Coppa Italias and one Supercopa Italiana but, sadly, the financial troubles at the club forced their hand and they had to sell their prized playmaking asset to Milan.
However, one moment during his time in Florence summed up the man’s love for his Portuguese roots. In 1996, Fiorentina faced off against Benfica, the club who he moved to Italy from, and, of course, Costa found the net against the team who had made him the star he was. His reaction? Well, it was the most muted of celebrations followed by a tearful trudge back into his half, summing up his humble persona.
Costa carried on his impressive form with the Rossoneri for a while, establishing a new bond with a different striker, Filippo Inzaghi. Of course, once Kaka emerged on the scene, the Portuguese star was moved further back alongside Andrea Pirlo in a deep-lying role.
There he adapted his game, recording a fair number of assists but the natural instincts that had made him a frightening goal scorer as well as creator in Florence were not allowed to be exerted. He still made the game look simple, but his best years had been left behind once he made the move to Milan. Of course, his scrapbook memory from his time at the club will be the iconic photo of he and Marco Materazzi in the Derby di Milano.
Costa’s impact in Italy was also mirrored in his exploits with the national side, establishing a fearsome double act with Figo as Portugal enjoyed some consistent years, reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2000 and the final of Euro 2004. During his 94 appearances on national duty, Costa found the net 26 times, a true legend in the eyes of Portuguese fans.
It seems odd that a player of his calibre is not discussed more in the modern day, a hard working number 10 with the grace and panache to put any team to the sword. His time in Italy was memorable and any young playmaker desperate to improve his game should simply watch Costa and learn from an underrated master.