The headmaster from my school, Jack we called him, was responsible for teaching me Geography but as he was a sweaty, sadistic, pervert prone to fits of unreasonable purple rage I didn’t respond well to his feeble guidance. My desk was merely a staging post for him on his way to try and peer down Suzanne Williams’ blouse so whether or not I had any grasp of rock formations was of no consequence to him and little interest to me. This is my excuse for not even knowing where Costa Rica was until about 6 months ago.
At some point I must have learned that heading south down the Americas you didn’t simply go; USA, Mexico then Brazil but I can’t remember when.
So, right, you know that skinny bit of land between North America and South America? That didn’t used to be there until it got shoved up out of the sea because two continental plates are moving at different speeds. Costa Rica is in the middle of that with Nicaragua to its north and Panama to its south. Costa Rica has 111 volcanoes (some of which are active), cloud forests, lush green mountains, a Pacific and a Caribbean coast so it has a bonkers micro-climate which means it has a vast diversity of plants, birds and animals.
In 1948 Costa Rica did away with its Army. “We don’t need that, let’s spend all the money we get for growing coffee and pineapples on schools and hospitals,” they said. They also manufacture and export shotguns and you can buy firearms in the shops here so don’t go thinking this is some Utopian Peace-heaven. When Nicaragua live next door that would be unwise. It is not a rich country but it is rich enough to do ecology well which means tourists come from all over the World. At the moment, because of the weak dollar and pound, that means loads of bloody French people. French people who seem to think any food left unattended in our hostel fridge is for them to help themselves. The C-bombs!
You could live here. You really could. Providing you could stand eating rice, black beans and eggs everyday for the rest of your life that is. However the most popular local beer is Imperial and you can buy that for less than a pound a bottle, even in the bars. We’ve been here a fortnight and haven’t met any locals who speak brilliant English but most speak a bit and when all you need is arroz, gallo pinto, huevos y cerveza, the amount of Spanish you require is minimal.
I’m wearing shorts sitting on a veranda and an iridescent green humming bird just flew up to me. We have been out on excursions and have seen monkeys, crocodiles, iguanas and all sorts of birds including a small green-backed heron which catches grasshoppers and throws them in the river as bait for fish, but it is the Costa Rican love for football that makes you think you could stay here.
The park two miles from here (here being downtown San Jose) on a weekend is swarming with people of all ages involved in kick-abouts. In the same park is the new 35,000 seater National Stadium. You can watch football 24 hours a day on TV although you need better Spanish than me or an encyclopaedic knowledge of world football to know what country a game is coming from. They show League games from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, USA, France, Germany, Italy and yesterday, over breakfast, we watched the Charity Shield live from dear old Blighty. (Didn’t realise how distasteful I found Manchester City these days until I involuntarily started clapping Man U’s late winner).
Our bus driver on a trip last week drove like a maniac to be home in time for Costa Rica v Australia in the Under 20s World Cup. A game interesting from a Newcastle United point of view because Mustafa Amini was playing for Oz. You might remember his outrageous ginger afro from the picture on nufc.com last season when we were linked with a move for the player. Costa Rica won 3-2 and looked odds on to qualify comfortably until they got battered 3-0 off Ecuador in the next game. Now they have a tricky game against hosts Columbia. The interest in the Under 20s was such that El Classico was moved back 24 hours so as not to clash. El Classico being Liga Deportiva Alajuelense v Saprissa, the big San Jose derby.
(Is the under 20s tournament widely covered at home? Do let me know, I have seen two of England’s three 0-0 draws. Amazingly, we are still in it and play Nigeria on Wednesday.)
The derby was a big deal but who to favour? Alajuelense play in smart black and red stripes (in a kit designed by Puma, proving once again they can do stripes, just not for NUFC) and Saprissa play in purple. Initially I was draw to the Saprissa because Alajuelense are champions and I didn’t want to look like a glory hunter but my new mate Alberro follows Alajuelense and they have got a striker called McDonald (Jonathon) which made me feel like we are following Newcastle in the 1970s.
We watched El Classico with Alberro in our hostel because the game was sold out and McDonald was everything you would hope for in a striker; quicker and stronger than any defender, with tied back dreadlocks but without the inclination to talk painfully slowly or to slag off NUFC players. He smashed in the goal that looked like winning the game for Alajuelense but that reckoned without our recent recruitment to the cause. Saprissa, despite being down to 10 men and without their best player (Joel Campbell who was still at the U20 World Cup – Arsenal reportedly offered £900,000 for him in July) equalised in the 93rd minute.
Costa Rican football has a problem that is bigger than their small population – when we were in the park there were about 5 games going on with kids of all ages in Alajuelense kits. Half wore bibs so it was likely the club’s youth project. In one of the games, one of the kid’s mums was in goal. Then we noticed that in other games across the park the ‘keepers were girls, old people or (as is traditional world-wide) the fat kid. Nobody wants to be in goal, two of the goals in the loss to Ecuador were aberrations. If Steve Harper could find a Costa Rican grandparent he would be treated like a God down here. Players at all levels will lump the ball into the stand rather than pass the simplest of balls back to their goalkeeper. ‘Keepers aren’t trusted to kick straight and the rest of the time they treat the ball like it was on fire and they flap uselessly at it.
On Sunday Alajuelense were due to play Belen (who I promised not to call Bell-end despite the obvious temptation) but Belen’s ground is too small so the game was moved to the International Stadium. It was less than a fiver to get in, so we went. It started badly, improved as Alajuelense went 2-0 up (goals from Kevin Sancho Carlos Mendez and our own new Super Mac) then died on its arse in the second half. We passed the 61 minute point where Newcastle v Fiorentina was abandoned, lounging over our backless seats in baking sunshine. Belen got one back and the Alajuelense fans, who vastly outnumbered the “home” fans in the unsegregated stadium, started whistling for time with about 5 minutes left. Despite our presence and nearly seven minutes of stoppage time the game ended 2-1.
Outside the stadium a merchandise vendor pointed at a very fetching black away top and then at me which was very perceptive of him. I nearly bought it but was glad I didn’t. Despite it being Sunday lunchtime and the crowd being good humoured and a family affair to the extent that we saw three babies at the game, a large police presence escorted the main body of black and red fans back to town. We easily slipped away and went in search of the bus stop for our next out of town adventure. This took us into the path of the police-escorted Saprissa fans whose game had also just finished. The games must have been four or five miles apart but it looked like the cops were leading the fans towards each other. Within seconds fans in purple were running towards where we had left fans in red and black. The inevitable sirens began and cops on bikes and in cars rushed along with the fans.
As to what happened next, I couldn’t tell you. Wifey and I have a long tradition in dealing with football violence which involves walking away from it in the direction of a pint. My lifelong skill in avoiding violence means Jack caned my brother but never got me. Shortly after he retired I saw him being harassed by a gang of glue-sniffers while trying to walk his dog, he looked terrified. Not entirely relevant but strangely pleasing never the less.
P.S. Costa Rica under 20s came from a goal down to lead Columbia 2-1 before the host nation equalised. In the third minute of injury time Columbia were awarded a penalty so controversial that three Costa Rica players were booked for dissent. The penalty was dispatched after a lengthy delay then members of the coaching team had to be restrained from the officials as they left the field. The ref? Well that would only be our own darling, Consett born, Mark Clattenburg. For what it’s worth I think it was a penalty but Alberro looked disappointed with me.