Graham Hunter: Diego Costa is finally able to enjoy a knees up in a Spain shirt

Diego Costa of Spain celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with team-mates during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Iran and Spain at Kazan Arena on June 20, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.
Diego Costa of Spain celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with team-mates during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Iran and Spain at Kazan Arena on June 20, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

In January 2011 I got a phone call from Alan Pardew, then the Newcastle manager, who wanted to replace the aggressive, physical, aerially successful striker he’d just lost to Liverpool.

With the money he’d received for Andy Carroll, Pardew told me that although Newcastle didn’t have a scouting network in Spain he wanted to find: “The next Fernando Torres”.

Back then I was doing quite a lot of television commentary in Spain for a network called Gol TV and seeing a great deal of La Liga and Segunda.

Although I was able to compile a list of ten players for ‘Pards’, the guy I put as my number one recommendation was a rough diamond finishing a loan spell at Real Valladolid.

When I’d watched him he was a menace. Hostile, athletic, tireless, really dogged in his wish to harass defenders into mistakes and possessed with a good dose of talent when he had the ball.

All he had to add, I told the Newcastle boss, was a few more good finishes, a higher month by month total of goals and he’d be a highly-prized asset.

That guy was, of course, Diego Costa.

I make no bones about the fact that I got that one right.

Here he is, this belligerent Brazilian-turned-Spaniard, holding down exactly the kind of role Torres performed for La Roja while winning three straight tournaments in 2008 (scoring in the final), 2010 (crossing for what became Iniesta’s World Cup-winning goal) and 2012 (scoring in the final).

Costa’s goal against Iran on Wednesday night may have looked a bit mongrel but the point about this fella is that the thoroughbreds around him have learned his value, learned to respect him and, most importantly, learned how to use him.

Spain sit top of their group today because of one booking fewer than Portugal – oh, the thrills of the World Cup and its rules.

That’s because Costa is keeping step with Cristiano Ronaldo – or at least is only one pace behind.

His three goals, compared with Ronaldo’s four, have all come from a Barca supply line.

Before the ball ricocheted back and forth off Iran’s barbed-wire defence in Kazan, and hit the bottom corner thanks to the striker’s knee, it was a nice surge forward and pass from Andres Iniesta which supplied him. “It doesn’t matter how they go in; this one was for the days when you hit the perfect shot and the keeper somehow gets a fingertip to it” Costa told me after the win as I conducted the Man of the Match interview.

That vital goal followed Sergio Busquets setting up each of Costa’s brace in Sochi against Portugal in that thrilling 3-3 draw.

Now, Iniesta and Busquets are from the school of football which says: ‘you’ll get the ball at the right time and not before’ to their strikers.

But Busquets set up Spain’s opening goal in this World Cup with a long punt forward, the like of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen him produce for his club. The two aristocrats of the ball can see the value of blue-collar work up front. They no longer have a Messi so they have tried to augment the attributes of their workhorse forward who’s on a bit of a surprise run.

Cast your mind back four years. Not only were Spain ousted unceremoniously from the Brazilian World Cup, they were humiliated.

I was at every training session in Curitiba and I can tell you that as much as Vicente Del Bosque and I get on well, it seemed to me a piece of indulgent nonsense that Costa was the starting centre forward.

His spate of hamstring problems, culminating in him walking off early in the 2014 Champions League final, had damaged his match sharpness and his complete inability to work out the intricate passing movements of Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc and Silva left him making needless runs, showing impatience and then looking broken of confidence when the ball did come his way.

Off the pitch, he can be a wacky, likeable, big, old, Baloo the Bear-type character. Shambling along, laughing or dancing or singing a lot of the time; you’ll often see him pinging people’s ear behind their back, tipping team-mates’ caps off, tapping someone’s shoulder and then walking away – you get the drift.

That tournament, it felt like he couldn’t really believe it had all happened – Spanish passport gained, squad selection and starting striker in his home country.

He was terrible, though, and all the while the Brazilian fans chanted the most horrible abuse about him because, of course, they felt he’d treacherously abandoned them.

Four years ago it was too soon for him. Spain weren’t ready to pass the ball long, quickly and he wasn’t quite football-sharp enough to adapt to team orders.

Now he’s a Premier League winner, a Europa League winner, hit the net five times in qualifying and within two goals of equaling a significant record.

The two Spaniards with most goals in a single world Cup are David Villa and Emilio Butragueno – two all-time greats. Each hit five (at Mexico 86, and South Africa 2010) so if Costa were to score just twice more he’ll equal them – three more and he’s top name in the pantheon of greats.

Quite a turnaround from four years ago at this stage.

The leopard can’t always be counted on to change his spots, however. Back to that stat of how Spain top the group.

Costa’s first goal against Portugal should not only have been ruled out, he should have been booked for his forearm to Pepe’s neck when they jumped for Busquets’ long ball.

He had a dust-up with Iran’s keeper when Beiranvand acted up a bit after, admittedly, Costa did stand on his toe.

It’s all part of the aggression which made him stand out to me in the first place. So, if Alan Pardew happens to be an Evening Express reader then, sorry, Pards, for banging on about this again. But I did get it so right, didn’t I?