Diego Costa, who recovered from injury to make a brief cameo in the Champions League final for Atletico Madrid, continued his steady rise with his best club campaign to date. He will parlay that into a memorable World Cup showing to vault him into a conversation alongside the game's elite.
The Brazil native opted to play for Spain at the international level after appearing in two matches for the Selecao. He'll now prepare for a return to Brazil, the host of the 2014 World Cup, where he'll look to play a key role in La Roja's title defense.
Costa was just 21 when Spain captured its first World Cup trophy four years ago. He was a player with immense potential still in the process of learning how to turn that natural talent into success.
Now, he's one of the best strikers in the world with a chance to become the key piece in Spain's quest to repeat as world champions. At the same time, he can prove he belongs in the same sentence as the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and Luis Suarez.
Messi and Ronaldo are the names that most often come up when talking about the best players in the world, and rightfully so. They have finished first and second in Ballon d'Or voting each of the past three years, with Messi winning twice and Ronaldo once, and are on pace to contend for the award again.
Ribery finished third in the voting for 2013 after showcasing great form for both Bayern Munich and France. Suarez was virtually unstoppable at times for Liverpool, scoring 31 goals and chipping in 12 assists in 33 Premier League matches.
Costa has enough talent to belong in the discussion with that quartet. He hasn't reached his full potential quite yet, but playing with a very talented cast of teammates on the Spanish national team can help him take that next step.
Upon making the decision to switch from Brazil to Spain, the striker talked about how Vicente del Bosque made him feel important. Dermot Corrigan of ESPN passed along Costa's comments concerning his much ballyhooed choice:
I never imagined it. When I heard there was interest from Spain I began to imagine things, to think: 'Why not?' It was a privilege that the world champions want you, a privilege to be able to help the great players they have. I felt very important. I valued it a lot.
Vicente del Bosque has shown me the type of person he is. I like to speak with people face to face, to feel what is true and what is a lie, and Vicente was very clear. He did not promise me anything. I do not like getting promises from people—I like to win them over.
What makes his presence so intriguing now that he's joined the defending champions is the amount of talent that will surround him. He's helped lead a very solid Atletico group, but even that isn't on the same level as the deep and extremely talented Spanish attack.
Putting Costa atop a formation that will include a combination of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, among others, has the potential to produce some awe-inspiring results. It should definitely bring out the best of the striker.
Andy Hunter of The Guardian provided remarks from Everton manager Roberto Martinez, a Spaniard, who believes Costa could provide the spark Spain needs to retain the world title:
The individuals are superb and the way they play is very clear so youngsters can fit in. Now they have the extra element of Diego Costa, an ex-Brazilian who you can imagine is going to bring a lot of spice. Against Brazil last summer they needed to find a way to get out of their own half and they can add that to their play now with Costa. I do feel Spain is still the team to beat.
What Costa must do in the next few weeks is focus on getting back to full strength. He's dealt with a lingering hamstring injury. He left the Champions League final after less than 10 minutes, although he didn't seem to be in any further pain, just lacking his usual explosiveness.
As long as he's healthy when the World Cup gets underway, he should shine brightly during the month-long tournament. He has too much talent and will be supported by too many talented players not to.
Spain faces a difficult road at the marquee international event. It starts with a tricky group that also includes the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. So if La Roja end up defending their championship, they will have certainly earned it.
Costa can take his next step toward superstardom in the process. He won't be able to surpass the likes of Messi and Ronaldo with one terrific tournament, but he can push himself into that upper echelon of stars with a dominant showing.
A lot of hype has followed him since he made the decision to join Spain. Now it's time for him to live up to it on the biggest football stage of them all.
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