By Bert van Bedaf, ABSW
Tuesday, 16 January 2001
Melbourne Knights coach Vlado Vanis signed forward Toto Da Costa at the start of this season after seeing him on video. Vanis continues to be impressed with his visa player, contracted for two seasons. Victorian editor Bert van Bedaf profiles the Angolan-born star.
Antonio Santos Maria Da Costa listens to the nickname Toto.
It has a ring about it, like Ronaldo or Romario.
Although not quite of the same calibre as the Brazilian superstars, Da Costa has brought his own brand of magic to Knights Stadium, where a critical home crowd is warming to his twists and turns, his thrusts into the box and, especially, to his goal scoring ability.
The unassuming 27-year-old professional footballer has come a long way to follow a career that includes a decade near the top in Portugal and the Netherlands.
But Australia might just become his home, once his wife and two children will have joined him in Melbourne.
“Australia is a fine country. I like it here,” he said.
“But it would be better if my family was here with me. It is hard on my own, without my family,” Da Costa offered a glimpse of introspection.
The Knights striker is due to return from a brief break in Holland this week – sorting out official paperwork – and hopefully his family will be able to join him shortly.
His life began in Luanda, the capital of war-torn Angola, which he left as a 15-year-old in 1988 to seek fame and fortune in Portugal.
A former Portuguese colony, West African Angola declared itself independent in 1975 and has been plagued by foreign incursions and several civil wars since.
Da Costa was “discovered” at an indoor soccer tournament in Portugal’s cosmopolitan capital at the start of the 1990s.
Signed by Bobby Robson, then coach of first division club Sporting Lisbon, Da Costa joined a squad of 36 players, hoping the break into the senior team.
Competition was so severe his chances proved slim, so he was loaned to neighboring second division club Estoril, where he played from 1992 to 1995 before joining Dutch second division club RBC Roosendaal on a two-year contract.
In 1997 he moved to local rival Eindhoven until the end of last year.
Following his departure at Eindhoven, Da Costa was unsettled for several months, playing for lower division clubs in Belgium and back in the Netherlands until midway last year when Vanis plucked him from obscurity and put him in Australia’s national league.
Da Costa has scored four goals so far and contributes substantially on the forward line.
He still needs to adjust his style of play to the directer and more physical demands of Australian football.
In Europe he was used to more tactical battles and more time on the ball.
“Teams in Europe play a more tactical and skillful game. Here the game is more physical and I will need to adjust,” Da Costa observed before flying to Holland on his break.
Naturally, the “adjustment” is taking time.
It has not always been without problems.
When the Knights went through their mini-crisis after a decent start, Vanis called on his “senior” players to step up and accept their responsibilities.
It wasn’t only Adrian Cervinski or Ransford Banini who were told to take charge.
Da Costa also came in for criticism.
“From a player with his reputation and experience, I expect much more,” a terse Vanis commented at the time.
Three months into the NSL season, Da Costa is gradually proving his worth.
With the return of Steve Horvat, Andrew Marth (Knights captain once again) and dynamic midfielder Lubo Lapsansky from Carlton and the addition of Daniel Vasilevski, also ex-Carlton, Da Costa can expect to be made a lot busier than earlier in the season.
Vanis has the luxury of applying different formations, from 4-4-2 or 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, with Horvat as sweeper and Da Costa more forward on the left or central and no longer wasting attacking energy chasing balls in midfield. Marth and Lapsansky are set to take the central reins.
Also, with Cervinski, Joel Porter and Vasilevski available, Da Costa will be enjoying more forward support as well as facing stronger competition, driving him to better performances.
“Toto is not yet used to Australian soccer, but when he is he can give us 20 to 30 per cent more,” Vanis assessed Da Costa’s considerable talent and abilities.
“The game is more physical here and he will need to get used to it. He is getting better and better. In the second part of the season, he’ll be more dangerous. He’s already getting more in the box and so far he’s scored four goals for us.
“We’ll be able to get the ball more often to him now. He’s dangerous on the ball. He’s an excellent runner and his first touch is good. He’s the type of player that can do a lot of damage with the ball,” Vanis said.
Dutch coaches or former players, who’ve known Da Costa gave the Angolan ace a similar report.
Bram Braam, RBC coach during Da Costa’s stay, said, “He’s two-legged, able to control the ball and shoot with both legs. He’s very athletic and goal focused. He’s a great player.”
Stan Valckx, who was at Sporting when Da Costa arrived, helped his protégé to get his stint in Holland.
Valckx played at first division club PSV Eindhoven, when Da Costa joined RBC.
“I saw him train with us at Sporting and I immediately realised he was a good footballer. I could see he was an exciting striker with a lot of talent. Bobby Robson liked him, but there were so many talented players in our squad and little need for strikers in a defensive league that Da Costa had trouble making the senior team,” Valckx said.
Da Costa agreed.
“I was part of the squad, but there were 36 players. I’d made the youth team and was hoping to break through. Robson said he liked me and had confidence in my style of play, but eventually I was loaned to Estoril,” he said.
Da Costa travelled to PSV at own expense to consult Valckx in a possible move to a Dutch club.
“He wanted to play football in Holland. He got a trial at RBC and the club asked my opinion about him. I told them that at RBC Da Costa would have the opportunity to grow,” the former Dutch international said.
His move to Holland came as a godsend for Da Costa, who thrived in the low lands.
“Da Costa: a sensation at RBC”, a Dutch headline described him, after he scored his fourth goal in four matches.
Now Da Costa has launched himself on a new path in a new country.
Like Banini, who made Australia and the Knights his home, having come from Africa’s Ghana as a youth player, Da Costa has his heart set on giving his family a new future.
“I want to do well in Australia and for the Melbourne Knights and with my family here things would be very good,” Da Costa expressed his dreams and ambitions.