Not many folks are brought to Mississippi because of soccer, a global game that has a steadily growing presence in the Magnolia State. The effort to help build the sport’s popularity in the area has brought in some new faces. Raised in Portugal by an Angolan father and English mother and educated in an international academy, Rafael Costa was already quite cultured by the time he arrived to play the game in the humidity of Mississippi.
“I went to take my first breath of fresh air after being on airplanes for so long, and I just felt like I was breathing in water,” he said.
Acclimating to new environments has never been a problem for Costa, though.
He first arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to play for Mississippi College while earning a postgraduate degree. In the process he met and married his wife Rebecca, graduated and took a job in coaching. It wasn’t long before the opportunity opened up to come to Starkville.
Beginning in the 2020-2021 season, Tupelo Futbol Club began managing Starkville Soccer Association, opening the door for Costa to be hired as director of coaching for Starkville’s competitive soccer program. In an hour-long interview with The Dispatch, Costa expressed not only his in-depth knowledge of coaching youngsters, but a pragmatism for the job he’s taken on and setting ambitious but realistic goals for growing the game in northeast Mississippi.
“It’s been a fantastic first season,” he said just over a year on from his appointment. “The coaches, players and parents bought into our program and understand what our long term goal is. Our players have shown great commitment to improving, and their development has been outstanding not only on the field but also off of it.”
There was already a good reputation for Starkville Soccer over the last couple decades, and generally it has functioned well off of mostly part-time workers and volunteers for decades, but the structure that has come with TFC and Costa has put people in place full-time to keep building.
Costa’s goal as director of coaching is to help provide kids with more opportunities to play and learn beyond just the early years of playing.
“My job is to make sure everything functions right,” Costa said. “The good thing about TFC is, since soccer in Mississippi is still developing, because it’s not the most popular sport, you don’t have the same socioeconomic situation as other big city areas, etc., but with that being said we have a big advantage in having full-time people who work. My main priority is this job, and I wake up in the morning and I’m available if parents need me, or to get in touch with coaches and find out what they’re doing or what they need. TFC doesn’t quite go to the extent of a professional academy, but having full-time people has made a substantial difference and that’s part of the reason why Starkville Soccer reached out in the first place.”
He had a good laugh after saying that, remembering some less than enthusiastic responses to certain drills.
“I divide it into three items: development, winning/competitiveness and fun. If you lose one of those elements, you’ll lose the kids, so it’s about finding that balance. Maybe sometimes there’s more of an emphasis on one of them, but the others are still there. It’s just finding when to apply which. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it really wrong.”
The soccer organization plans to provide opportunities for as many younger kids to play as possible, and as the numbers thin out in higher age groups, TFC can help organize centralized teams for older kids to continue playing in a competitive environment and test their skill against other teams.
“Because of the fact that our overall goal isn’t winning, it allows us to provide the younger teams with the potential to enjoy soccer and see if they like it. Once they hit U-13, some small towns can’t sustain full teams, but if you want to continue playing you can go play with teams in Starkville or Tupelo. From there, what we want to start doing is taking the best older kids from Starkville and Tupelo and form a team similar to what Mississippi Rush United is doing,” he said.
Rush United formed similarly to TFC’s expansion, consolidating certain soccer programs in and around Jackson and putting teams together that consisted of the most talented in the area to play travel ball. Costa is hopeful that eventually TFC’s development and support system is at that level to foster teams that can compete with the best from other states as well as Mississippi.
“TFC’s mission is that we want to be able to provide that opportunity as well. The Northeast of Mississippi has already produced some great athletes and players from what I’ve seen, and there were some especially from the Starkville or Tupelo areas that could have gotten better. The only reason some haven’t gone on or gotten better I think is maybe because there weren’t always those opportunities out there. So hopefully as the years go on here in Starkville, we’ll be able to provide that and put together better teams to compete with surrounding states, and even beyond that if possible.
“I always pictured myself working full time in soccer,” Costa said, “it was just a question of what that would look like. As of right now I couldn’t ask for a better position or a better place. There’s a lot of potential in Starkville due to the commitment of its community, and hopefully we’ll continue to strive on as we develop the sport I love here!”