"The first thing they told me was that I was crazy. The second thing was that I was completely crazy. In a way, I was." That was how Alberto 'Tino' Costa's friends and relatives reacted when he told them he wanted to leave Argentina and travel to the Caribbean to pursue his dream of playing professional football.
Born in Las Flores, 187km from Buenos Aires, Costa was only 15 when he left home for Guadeloupe. "A friend of the family had a football club there and invited me," says Costa. "I didn't know anything about the island. They had no professional football but I told everybody it was the best way to get a transfer to Europe. And they told me I was… crazy."
Twelve years later Costa is lighting up the UEFA Champions League for Valencia CF. At the heart of the Blanquinegros' victories on matchday two and three, the playmaker appreciates his place all the more because of the unorthodox route he took to Mestalla.
His transition to life in Guadeloupe at Racing Club de Basse-Terre was not an easy one. "I often packed my suitcase and vowed to leave the next day," he admits. "But I'd wake up with more willpower to remain." Originally a left-back, Costa was so accomplished he was asked to switch to left midfield and unsuccessful trials with a number of European clubs followed, including at AJ Auxerre, Olympique de Marseille, LOSC Lille, Olympique Lyonnais and SC Bastia.
"I had to wait two more years for another chance, and Racing Club Paris finally signed me." However, moving to Paris was not the happy ending he was expecting. Living in an empty flat, he did not even have a bed. "It was hard to sleep anyway. There was a butcher on the ground floor and he started chopping at 4am!"
After spells at two more French sides, Costa caught the eye of Montpellier Hérault SC, then in Ligue 2, who signed him in 2008. His match winner against RC Strasbourg clinched Montpellier's promotion to Ligue 1 and was glorious proof that Costa was not crazy. "That day I felt like a professional footballer for the first time," he remembers.
In 2010, Valencia paid Montpellier €6m for Costa. "The first season was difficult. I was playing in the world's best league," he says. But he adapted and his UEFA Champions League debut, against Bursaspor in September 2010, was an emotional occasion. "I couldn't believe I was playing in the competition. Not that long before I'd been watching the games with friends. Now I was playing in them, listening to that unique melody."
Having earned a first call-up to the Argentina national side in October, it may seem that the hard part of his journey is over, but the 27-year-old refuses to ease off. "Those who tell me I can relax because I've made it clearly don't know me. I'm always setting new goals. It's how I've kept busy these past ten years."
The full interview with Tino Costa is in the latest edition of Champions Matchday, available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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