Costa Ricans love their football. No, not the NFL (although you can find those games on TV down here). The game that is actually played with the feet — fútbol, in Spanish. Only in the USA is the world’s most popular sport referred to as “soccer”… but in deference to my main audience, I’ll use that term in this essay.
Flip on the TV, and just about every sports channel in Costa Rica is showing soccer. Every Uber driver has a team — just ask them. In San José, it seems like the vast majority are fanaticos de Saprissa, the perennial top team in the domestic league. (Expats from the United States — don’t call them “Americans”— whom I’ve talked to liken rooting for Saprissa to being a Yankees fan.) Since I love soccer, I fit in well.
When I flew here a month ago to interview for English-teaching jobs, I found my way to a soccer store downtown. I went there looking for a jersey or two — I wanted a Costa Rican national team jersey to add to my collection. I ended up hitting it off with the very friendly guys who worked there, especially a young man named Gordy. The jerseys were super cheap, and I ended up buying a bunch of bootlegged pro and national team jerseys (Christmas presents, I told myself).
I chose a Saprissa jersey because I liked the purple color, but when I got it home I discovered that the collar was too tight. So I went back the next day and exchanged it for a slick black-and-red camisa, the official jersey of Liga Deportiva Alajuelense (La Liga for short). I don’t like rooting for the Yankees, anyway.
Of course, at that point I had never actually watched a minute of Costa Rican pro soccer. But last week I had my chance — the second games of the semifinals of the Costa Rican domestic league were scheduled. La Liga faced San Carlos, while Saprissa was going up against Heredia. Both matches started at 8 p.m. local time. Unfortunately, I had already made plans to connect with some of my new coworkers that night. I thought it might be possible to catch the end of the games, but I wasn’t sure where.
When the evening came and I’d finished hanging out with my friends, I called an Uber and decided to just head back to my Airbnb. I was tired, and wasn’t sure how much of the games still remained. Maybe I’ll catch the finals, I thought as I waited for the driver to show.
I’d been having trouble with my Uber rides, however — for some reason, San José doesn’t actually have street addresses. (Seriously; it’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever come across.) This can make it tricky to tell Uber where you are going. Sure enough, on this occasion my driver took an unfamiliar route and finally pulled over in the middle of a strange neighborhood. I looked around, recognizing nothing. In broken Spanish I tried to get him to input a new destination, but apparently he was late for a hot date. He showed me the name “Stephanie” on his phone and bluntly told me (in Spanish) to get out.
So there I was — 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, stranded somewhere in San José, Costa Rica. Screw it, I decided, I’m just going to walk until I find a place showing the games (or I’m raped and murdered, whichever comes first). I hiked a half-mile, with nothing promising appearing. I was just about to give up and call another Uber, when I spied an oasis — a tiny corner bar ahead. I walked up to the door and peered in — sure enough, the place was crowded with people avidly watching soccer.
The metal security screen door was locked. I called “Abierto?” to the two guys nearest the door, and they nodded. Then the door buzzed open. “How exclusive,” I thought, and wandered in. The place was simple and no-nonsense — about 15’ x 60’, with five or six tables and an L-shaped bar hugging one side. About 12 people sat or stood, riveted on six small TVs (three for each match). My kind of place.
I couldn’t have stuck out more if I’d been wearing shorts and flip-flops in Siberia. I was the only non-Tico in the joint, and I was still dressed in my work clothes and had my messenger bag with me. Serious gringo alert. I felt badly out of place… but hey, this was playoff soccer. I ordered a Coke and settled down next to the two gentlemen at the front, who were watching the match involving La Liga (“my team”).
To be friendly (and because I didn’t know who was who), I asked, “Es La Liga blanca?” Were they wearing the white uniforms? The two informed me that La Liga was wearing red. I should have known that — my jersey (which was, lamentably, back at my Airbnb) was red and black.
Marked as a fake fan, I decided to move to the back of the bar so I could watch both games. Things were getting tense — heading toward the end of the second games, both series were tied on aggregate goals. (If you aren’t a soccer geek, you don’t know what that means… and I hesitate to explain it, because it’s pretty idiotic. Essentially, the teams play a mini-series of two games — known as two legs — one at each home field. You total up the goals in both games to get the winner. Ties get complicated.)
Shortly after I parked myself discretely at the corner of the bar, a serious-looking guy wearing a pinstriped suit plunked down next to me and ordered a beer. His hair was pulled back tightly in a man-bun. After a few minutes, it occurred to me where I’d seen that look before — Mafia hitman. Wonderful. My chances of being beaten, robbed and left for dead in a Costa Rican gutter had just doubled.
I wondered if perhaps I’d soaked up enough local color and should exit while the games were still going on — averting the chance that enraged fans of the losing teams would find me a convenient target for expressing their frustration. But if I wanted to avoid risk, I never would have quit my job, given up my apartment and moved down to Costa Rica to teach English with absolutely no teaching experience. I was here for adventure. I wanted to have new experiences, to push myself.
Plus, I wanted to see who won. They wouldn’t be showing the highlights on SportsCenter.
I decided to risk pulling out my phone. (Who was I kidding — everyone has a smartphone these days. It’s not like I was giving anything away by showing mine. Most of the people in the bar probably had nicer phones.) I wanted to text my soccer buddies back in the States. I also checked in with my pal Gordy on WhatsApp.
Did I mention that Gordy is a Saprissa fan? When I mentioned to him a few days earlier that I was a La Liga supporter, he was rather miffed (in classic Yankee-fan style).
Living in a country where you don’t speak the language, you are often slightly confused by random things but lack the ability to elicit an explanation. This situation was no different: I noticed that the Saprissa telecast was showing the match time in the standard “count up to 90 minutes” approach. When regulation time ended and the game was tied, it continued to count up through two overtimes of 15 minutes each (up to a total of 120). If the game was still tied after that 30 minutes of extra time, it would go to a penalty-kick shootout.
But the La Liga game telecast was showing that the game was in its 40th minute. I thought they had started at around the same time, so this was confusing. After 45 minutes, there was a break, and then the clock started again at zero. I was thoroughly perplexed and had no idea what was going on. An web search on my phone didn’t help. But Gordy’s text indicated that both games were headed for a shootout, so I just rolled with it.
Sure enough, both matches ended up deadlocked after 120 minutes. The dreaded penalty shootout to decide who would win each two-game series and advance to the championship round.
This was oddly familiar. My previous trip to Costa Rica coincided with the second leg of a playoff round involving my true soccer team, the Seattle Sounders. We were playing our hated rival, the Portland Timbers, in the conference semifinals. I had trekked to an Irish bar in San José in an attempt to watch that game, but (shockingly) none of the sports channels were showing it. A half-dozen channels of international soccer on offer, but no love for the top league of the Estados Unidos. How humbling.
No problem, I thought at the time. I would just stream the game on my phone. That’s when I learned that ESPN didn’t mind if I used my Portland cousin’s cable account to stream sports in Seattle, but they weren’t going to let me do it in a foreign country. Dammit. (I’ve since learned of the magic of a VPN.)
So I ended up listening to a radio broadcast of the second half of the Sounders game on my phone. There was a flurry of scoring, but after 120 minutes the game was still tied. It headed to a shootout… and I fell asleep right before it happened. (Costa Rica is two hours ahead of Seattle, so it was after midnight. Still, embarrassing.) The next day I sadly learned that Portland had won the shootout and the series.
A bad omen for this time around? Gordy told me I needed to let that bitterness go and just Be Here Now.
I began watching the Saprissa shootout, but after the first few shots the La Liga shootout began. I began swiveling my head to the two TVs, trying to track both games at the same time. Which one to focus on? The telecasts, true to form, each displayed the running tally of goals differently. Who was ahead? I couldn’t keep track! Aaaaaaaggghhhh!
Suddenly, it was all over. Saprissa had lost. La Liga had won. Joy for me, pain for Gordy and the many Saprissa fans in the bar. (I believe I heard a few “Puta!” exclamations after each Saprissa penalty kick miss. It’s an epithet with a long, sordid history in Spanish-speaking soccer nations… but I wasn’t going to say anything.)
Overall, though, everyone seemed to be in a decent mood about the whole thing. People laughed and joked, and began to trickle out into the warm night. I finished my Coke, paid the tab, called for a car and walked out of the bar. The Mafia guy never even looked my way.
I’ve always said there’s something wonderful about sports and the power they have to bring people of vastly different backgrounds together in support of a common cause. I was thousands of miles from Seattle, a gringo in the midst of strangers, a foreigner in a foreign land… but I was home.
I think I’m going to like it here.