It doesn't matter how carefully he tucks in his shirt, or how fiercely he yanks at his socks before a match. By the 30 minute mark, Rui Manuel César Costa is an absolute mess: Socks at midshin, shirttails flying, mud somewhere on his body, even when the sky is at its most blue.
And no matter how hard he tries -- more often, it seems, as he's gotten older -- to act jaded and reserved before the ball is put in play, or when he's standing over a free kick, anyone who bothers to look can see, just underneath, that he's positively tingling. Tingling. Forget the titles, forget the acclaim. Forget the adoration. More than anyone else I've watched closely since the dark day I fell for football, Rui Costa adores playing the game with every fiber of his being. Every second on the pitch is a gift, one more chance to be a part of this game that's become his life.
Exhibit A: Portugal v England [June 24, 2004, Estadio da Luz (Lisbon, Portugal)]
Rui Costa was Portugal's final substitute in their epic Euro 2004 quarterfinal match with England, coming on for Miguel in the 79th minute. At the time, Portugal were losing 0-1; within five minutes, they were level.
It didn't matter that Rui Costa neither scored nor set up the goal, it was impossible to take your eyes off him, because he was everywhere (socks around his ankles, shirt hanging over his hips). Every time he touched the ball, there was a feeling something special would happen -- that he would make it happen, though sheer force of will, and desire, and passion. As the game went into extra time, he was bright and fresh and lively when everyone around him was running on fumes, and you could tell he was going to change the game (and that he knew it). This was his last chance; these were potentially his last minutes in the Portugal shirt, and he wasn't going to let them pass unrecognized.
(I don't even remember the penalty he missed.)
Exhibit B: Luís Figo Foundation Benefit Match [June 9, 2007 Estádio José Alvalade (Lisbon, Portugal)]
Charity matches are a strange animal: Packed with stars and talent, yet played at a full gear below a trot, they're a chance for friends to get together and play some mostly rubbish football before a more-or-less adoring public. It's understood that no one tries very hard, and nobody gets hurt.
And Rui Costa tries to follow the rules, he really does. He jogs (even slower than usual), he laughs, he tries to keep his runs to a minimum. But when he's got the ball at his feet, he just can't help himself. His entire being changes, and the event transforms -- just for those few moments -- from a lazy kickabout to an actual match in which anything can happen. He leans forward slightly, his head up, barely registering the way everyone responds to him and moves more sharply; with more awareness. And he plays a perfect pass out to the right, just like he's done a million times before, take another couple of steps, and stops to watch (following the rules again). The pleasure in that single touch is writ all over his body, from the way he stands to the way he holds his head, to the way, even at half speed, his socks still won't stay up.
Exhibit C: Naval v Benfica [February, 17 2008 Estádio Municipal José Bento Pessoa (Figueira da Foz, Portugal)]
With the score 1-0 in Benfica's favor and barely five minutes remaining in the match, Rui Costa is warming up on the sideline. The moment José Antonio Camacho calls him, the 35-year-old in his last season dashes to his side, taking off his bib as he runs. He drops his ear to his coach's mouth and listens and nods like a 17-year-old about to play his first professional match.
He enters the pitch in the 84th minutes and transforms the game: Every touch but one (and that one sets up Benfica's clinching goal) is clinical, displaying his vision, intelligence, and instinctive knowledge of how football is meant to be played.
Somewhere inside, he can feel the hours slipping away.