Porto vs Milan Throwback: When Weah Headbutted Jorge Costa

The last time that Porto received Milan for a Champions League game is not necessarily remembered for what happened on the pitch – a dull 1-1 draw – but rather for what happened in the aftermath of the game, with Rossoneri star George Weah delivering a knock-out headbutt to Portuguese defender Jorge Costa.

Every football player, no, every man has his bad moments. But on that night of November 20, 1996, George Weah absolutely lost it and went as far as delivering the Porto captain a vicious headbutt that broke Jorge Costa’s nose and earned the current Liberia president a six-match ban.

The event had an even bigger resonance considering that Weah had always been known as an overly fair player. On top of that, he was the current Ballon d’Or holder and the first non-European player to receive the prestigious France Football award. So how could that happen?

Well, it needs to be said that Milan were a pressure cooker those days. After winning four out of the five previous Italian titles, in the 1996/97 season the Rossoneri were suddenly discovering themselves vulnerable despite still having one of the most powerful rosters in Europe on paper.

In the summer, Milan had lost their commander-in-chief Fabio Capello, who had flown to Madrid to bring back Real to their former glory. The new coach was Oscar Washington Tabarez but the Maestro from Uruguay was having a hard time adjusting to the Serie A life.

At the back, legendary defender Franco Baresi was inexorably losing his form, so much that at the end of the season he would take the wise decision to hang his boots. The new arrivals from the summer transfer market were not living up to the expectations, from Frenchman Christophe Dugarry to Dutchmen Michael Reiziger and Edgar Davids – whom Milan had plundered from Ajax after being outclassed by the Dutch champions in the previous Champions League Final.

But Milan still had Weah and, according to the France Football jury, the Liberian was still the best player in the world. Weah had started the season in an emphatic fashion scoring a spectacular coast-to-coast goal to Verona in the Serie A opener.

However, things had taken a bad turn for the Rossoneri soon after. In November, Milan were sixth in the Serie A table and had accumulated a four-point gap from top-ranked Inter. Things were not going much better in the Champions League, where they had lost two out of their initial four games, seeing Porto come from behind to snatch a 2-3 win at the San Siro in the first match of the European season.

Milan’s trip to Porto was thus not only a chance to avenge their loss in the reverse fixture. It was their last opportunity to catch the train to the knockout stage, which Tabarez and co. were dangerously risking missing.

The Dragoes, on the other hand, were flying high. With a perfect record of four wins out of four games, they had already secured their ticket to the next stage. The Portuguese were led by the incredibly prolific (at least in those days…) striker Mario Jardel, one who would leave Porto in 2000 after scoring 130 goals out of 125 games (!) – a Lionel-Messi-esque average.

Sergio Conceicao, who is currently sitting on the Dragoes bench, was setting the tempo in Porto’s midfield back in the days and even if veteran goalkeeper Vitor Baia had left the previous summer, the Portuguese seemed to have found a valid replacement in the home-grown Hilario.

The match at the late Estadio das Antas – that was replaced by the Estadio do Dragao in 2004 – was a tense affair where Milan risked conceding a goal in the early stages as Artur dashed past a declining Baresi but saw his shot blocked by goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi.

Milan were also helped by luck or maybe by the referee, who refrained from punishing the already booked Marcel Desailly with a second yellow card for a brutal tackle on Artur just before the half time break.

Perhaps relying more on their anger than on some well-crafted attacking plan, Milan somehow broke the deadlock on 56 minutes as Edgar Davids caught a Weah assist and beat Hilario with a clinical left foot shot. That would end up being the Dutchman’s only goal of his disappointing stint in red-and-black. Davids would leave Milan the following season and find much better fortunes at Juventus, but that is a different story.

Back to that night at the Estadio das Antas, Milan’s lead lasted only a bunch of minutes. Brazilian winger Edmilson pounced on a clearance from Desailly and whipped the ball past Rossi to set the score at 1-1 and push back the Rossoneri’s challenge.

But while the two sides shared the spoils, a parallel story unfolded. The story of a heated quarrel between George Weah and Porto’s captain Jorge Costa, a club stalwart that would spend 15 professional seasons playing for the Dragoes.

In the reverse fixture, Costa had stomped (perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally…) on the Liberian’s hand, causing him a wound that had to be sutured. When the two met again, Jorge Costa’s disdain for his opponent was a bit more explicit and took the form of a brutal tackle that hit Weah’s leg dangerously close to the knee.

Fast forward to a few minutes later, past full time, and the story of the feud became resoundingly public as Jorge Costa appeared in front of TV cameras with a bloody, battered face and a broken nose. More than 20 years before the digital age, the Portuguese promptly understood the importance of showing things in “real time” and showcased the proof of the aggression he suffered from Weah in a very heated post-match.

There were no doubts, as multiple witnesses could confirm. George Weah had headbutted Jorge Costa in the stadium tunnel and it took all of Milan CEO Adriano Galliani’s diplomatic skills to prevent his player from being arrested by the Portuguese authorities.

Weah received a six-match ban and, in view of Milan’s poor results in the following seasons, did not play another Champions League game until three years later. He tried to justify himself saying that he headbutted Costa in retaliation for the racist slurs he received across the two games but there were no witnesses to prove his point.

And so, the Jorge Costa incident remained a stain on his still shimmering career, an event that Milan fans would gladly forget – along with a shameful season whose nadir was a shocking 1-2 home loss to Rosenborg two weeks later that certified their elimination from the Champions League.



November 20, 1996 – Champions League 1996-97 Group Stage

SCORERS: 56′ Davids (M), 71′ Edmilson (P)

PORTO: Hilario, Aloìsio, Fernando Mendes, Jorge Costa, Sergio Conceicao, Drulovic (54′ Jardel), Barroso, Bino (66′ Folha), Zahovic, Artur (83′ Joao S. Pinto), Edmilson (Wozniak, Joao V. Pinto) Coach: Oliveira

MILAN: Rossi, Panucci, Maldini, Baresi, Desailly (81′ Ambrosini), Costacurta, Boban, Davids, Eranio (89′ Dugarry), Weah, R. Baggio (79′ Simone) (Pagotto, Reiziger) Coach: Tabarez

REFEREE: Grabher (Austria)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Sergio Conceicao, Zahovic (P), Desailly, Davids, Eranio (M)