I forgot how much I loved Costa Rica until the World Cup started last month. Two hours ago, when I was nearly frothing at the mouth as I screamed hoarsely at the the television (frightening the more sensible patrons of Fado Irish Pub), and angrily Tweeting racial epithets against the Dutch while alternately hugging random Ticos, I remembered that this love is for real.
This Dutch team is making me racist. And FIFA is re-enforcing my suspicion of authority
— Nicaragua Dispatch (@nicadispatch) julio 5, 2014
It’s an awful thing to watch a valiant team like Costa Rica lose to an arm-flailing, back-arching, shin-grabbing, ground-diving team like the Netherlands. And I should probably end my article here and go to bed before I alienate an entire nation of readers. But what the hell — I have a few more things to say on this subject, and I’m too upset to sleep.
Full disclosure: I used to cover Costa Rica’s National Soccer Team in the nonage of my journalism career, back in the heady days of the Ticos’ 2002 World Cup bid. Back then, I was a strapping young lad and The Sele was the No. 1 seed team from the CONCACAF. Their fans (me and my readers) expected great things from our beloved team; at the very least, we thought, we would advance beyond the knock-out round of the tournament.
Alas and alack, the Soccer Gods conspired against our better interests. Ni modo, mae. That was a great team, and I still remember them with the fondness of former lovers — Lonnis in the net, Wallace and Castro anchoring the midfield, Wanchope and “La Bala” Gomez up front at striker. And those weren’t even my favorite players; I had infinite faith in Rolando Fonseca’s goal-scoring abilities, from anywhere on the field (as I boldly told The Guardian in an interview at the time), and I proudly wore a #5 uniform to honor my favorite player of all, Gilberto Martinez, the slide-tackling sensation who patrolled the Tico backfield like an unfed panther.
The 2002 Costa Rica team was my favorite forever — until three weeks ago, that is. Now I have 11 new boyfriends — Navas, Duarte, Bolaños, Ruiz, Campbell…let me count the ways. That may sound gushy, but I’m not alone in this love affair. The rest of Central America agrees with me. This Costa Rica team has arguably done more for regional integration than 20-plus years of Taiwanese-funded political and economic efforts under SICA
In fact, Nicaraguan-born Sele fullback Oscar Duarte’s game-winning goal against Uruguay in Game 1 did more to unify Nicaragua and Costa Rica than anything else since the joining of militia arms to oust gringo filibuster William Walker. Anyway, the point is that soccer brings people together. Not since the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series have I hugged more strangers in a bar. And not since V-E Day have I been retweeted by so many friends and unknown people around the world.
Robben has enough frequent flyer miles for a free flight back to Holland after the game. #CRCvsNED
— Nicaragua Dispatch (@nicadispatch) julio 5, 2014
Costa Rica may have lost to the Diving Dutchmen, but the Sele’s herculean— dare I say “Keylorean”— effort in the World Cup has elevated Central America to a new level. And it happened just when the region needed it most.
For the past few months, Central America’s only role in the international media has been that of migrant-exporting hellhole. It’s a place from which unaccompanied children want to escape, not a place that anyone in their right mind wants to cheer for.
Costa Rica turned that equation on its head. And strangely enough, the country that is most opposed to Central America’s integration efforts has managed to bring the isthmus together like no one else. Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and — yes— even Nicaraguans have gathered around the warming glow of the TV set to root for Costa Rica. (Even my wife, a no-nonsense Nicaraguan, started a claaap-claaaap-clap-clap-clap-Vamos-Ticos! chant at the bar tonight, as her husband, the dashing blue-eyed devil, nearly teared up with pride).
Anyway, long story short, Costa Rica lost the game thanks to a FIFA/Dutchman screw job. It was actually more complicated than that, but that’s all you’ll get from me (if you want a more detailed account of the game, read a sports website).
I, and the Ticos with whom I was watching the game, was devastated. But that’s when the real learning began. As I left the bar, amid a group of slinkily embarrassed Dutch fans who skulked out of the bar without the bravado one might expect from a conquering clan, I saw Central Americans holding their heads high. Ticos, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans were walking chest-out, yelling words of encouragement to one another across the street. It felt good. It felt, almost, like we’d won.
Several Ticos made encouraging comments to me on the street, as did a drunk Nicaraguan who was still wearing an Argentinian jersey from earlier in the day. An equally drunk Guatemalan came up to us and offered slurred words of encouragement, some of which were intelligible. And then my favorite Central American neighbor, a humble Honduran named Socrates, who sells flowers at a traffic light during all hours of the day and night, offered the best words that put everything in perspective.
“Costa Rica didn’t play with any fear, and they are the first team from CONCACAF to not lose in regular time in the quarterfinals,” Socrates told me, grinning from ear to ear.
As the light stayed red, he told me how proud he was of Costa Rica for playing so bravely, and something about how the last time a CONCACAF team did so well was when Mexico advanced while hosting the World Cup in 1986. At that point I wasn’t listening any more. I was just watching Socrates, smile on his face, light turning green overhead, tell me about how Costa Rica had made him hopeful and proud.
That’s good enough for me.