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Costa Rica was ready to explode in nationwide outrage when New Zealand scored a tying goal after an uncalled foul in last week’s World Cup soccer cliffhanger in Qatar.
Fortunately, the refs reviewed the play, in which New Zealand’s Matthew Garbet wrapped his arm around Oscar Duarte’s leg like a boa constrictor — a foul you could spot from the nosebleed seats. The goal was annulled and the score remained 1-0 Costa Rica to the final whistle, giving Ticolandia the final open berth in the World Cup and plunging a nation into ecstasy.
My Tica girlfriend came running out of the bedroom, dancing and hugging and shrieking, “We’re going to the Copa Mundial!” And she is not normally a soccer fan.
The Costa Rican constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, but judging from the fervor of the faithful, there’s a strong argument to be made that the national religion here is really fútbol.
I went to the bank at noon that Tuesday and the guard told me the bank was closed until 2 p.m. — because of the game! Surely it would be a violation of human rights to force bank clerks to work while a nation’s hopes and prayers hinge on a 90-minute game being played 8,500 miles away.
The bank eventually reopened, but hours later, Costa Rican TV was still airing live video of Ticos celebrating in the streets, in the bars and even in Qatar. You have to understand that in this country soccer is not just a game, it’s a national obsession.
Costa Rica’s World Cup history
As luck would have it, Costa Rica will face Spain, Japan and (yikes) Germany in the first round of play in Group E. Germany has won four World Cup titles — a second-place tie with Italy that is topped only by Brazil, which has won five.
The Ticos have never won, though they shocked the world in 2014 when they faced world champions Italy, England and Uruguay — the so-called “Group of Death” — in the first round of play. Against all odds, Costa Rica defeated Uruguay 3-1 and Italy 1-0, with a 0-0 draw against England. But the Ticos eventually lost to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
The FIFA World Cup is held every four years, and in 2018 Costa Rica also qualified for the big rumpus in Russia. Unfortunately, Team Tico was eliminated early by Serbia, 1-0, and by Brazil, 2-0.
But hope springs eternal. Costa Rica has long had the best team in Central America, backed by Keylor Navas, one of the best goalies in the game. After a stellar run with Real Madrid from 2014 to 2018, Navas now plays for Paris Saint-Germaine. Some lists place this native of Pérez Zeledón among the greatest goaltenders of all time.
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Left-footed midfielder Bryan Ruiz is no slouch either. The captain of “La Sele,” aka “los Ticos,” currently plays for home team Alajualense, known as “La Liga.” Despite a few setbacks, including a broken foot in 2012, he remains among Costa Rica’s most reliable scorers. (He also had a hilarious cameo in the breakout Costa Rican comedy film “Maykol Yordan de viaje perdido.”)
Joel Campbell, born in San José of Jamaican descent, is a dangerous forward for the Costa Rican team. He has played in over 110 international matches, and he scored the winning goal against New Zealand on June 14 after just three minutes because he doesn’t like to waste time.
Celso Borges, born in San José to a Brazilian soccer dad, is also one to watch. He has scored 27 goals in 153 international caps.
Soccer for non-fans
If you’re reading this in English, and you’re not from Manchester or Liverpool, you might be from the U.S. or Canada, a fan of American football, baseball, basketball, hockey or even curling. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (But O! Canada has qualified for this World Cup for the first time in 36 years.)
Yet if aliens from space landed on Earth and wanted to challenge earthlings to a match in our biggest sport, we would have to teach them to play a game where they cannot use their hands, tentacles or anything but their feet. It’s easy to forget in a sports bar in the U.S. that soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world.
In 1970, when I was 7, my family moved to Durango, Mexico, and I noticed that our black-and-white TV often showed nothing but soccer matches. I couldn’t understand the announcer’s breathless interest in such a low-scoring game. But I soon learned that I would have to play soccer during recess at school every day, or else I would become a total pariah.
Soccer (universally known as “football” outside the U.S. and Canada) has been called “the beautiful game.”
The rules are pretty simple — each team tries to kick an inflated ball into the opponent’s net, where only the goalie can use his (or her) hands. Yet it’s typically a very low-scoring game, and the acrobatics needed to find the back of the net can indeed be a thing of beauty.
A game that anyone can play
This game can be played by urchins on the streets of any barrio, even with a ball made of wadded-up paper and tape. This game is the great equalizer among sports because any kid can play it with no equipment and no training.
The Brazilian great Pelé, whose 1,279 goals in 1,363 games (including friendlies) remain a world record, grew up in poverty. Since he couldn’t afford a soccer ball, he made one by stuffing newspaper into a sock, or else he played with a grapefruit!
Four years ago, in the run-up to the last World Cup, I met two diehard fútbol fanatics known for painting their faces and bodies in the red, white and blue of the Tico flag.
Juan Carlos Ruiz and Manfred Robert, both of Playas del Coco, go to all the World Cups where Costa Rica qualifies. Juan Carlos said he learned body-painting from a man who paints naked women. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he posed for a photo with Nobel Peace Prize-winning former President Oscar Arias, and got paint on his elegant jacket.
“The experience of a World Cup is … it’s better than the Olympics,” Manfred told me. “It’s like going to the Super Bowl, but every day for a month.”
Clear your schedule now
The Ticos will face Spain on Nov. 23, Japan on Nov. 27 and Germany on Dec. 1.
And I’m going to make a prediction right now: These are not good days to go to the bank.