Friday, April 30, 2010

Costa Rica

This is going to be a somewhat long-winded post. So if you want to duck out of it, now’s the time. No hard feelings. Promise.


Costa Rica has to be one of the hottest places on Earth. Or at least it was when I was there last week. You know how you go on vacation to a warmer destination, and you complain about the heat, but locals just roll their eyes because, you, yes you, are just another crazy tourist who has no idea what real heat is?

Yeah, that definitely wasn’t the case. It was hellfire HOT in Costa Rica. Hace calor seemed to be the catchphrase the entire time I was down there. Heck, I think I even saw some of the birds unzip their feathers. But that could’ve totally been a mirage.

The one thing about Costa Rica I enjoyed the most when I wasn’t sweating off eight pounds of water weight besides the beaches, the palm trees, and the barbed wire fences that line the streets of San Jose was, by far, the futbol.

Let me tell you something: Costa Ricans love their futbol. Love in the strongest sense possible. It cannot be overstated. I would even go so far as to say that they probably love it more than any American loves any sport here. They might even love it even more than their own mothers.

I introduce these ideas to provide the backdrop of my trip Estadio de Alejandro Morera Soto in Alajuela, which happens to house Liga Deportiva Alajulense, or simply Alajuelense, or LDA, or Los Rojinegros.

The first thing I noticed about the stadium was its location. It’s lodged square inside a busy neighborhood surrounded by sodas, bodegas, and small houses. It’s the kind of place you definitely cannot tailgate, much like the streets surrounding Fenway Park. But that’s not such a bad thing at all.

Nope, it’s a good thing. Now, I’ve been to all kinds of sporting events at all kinds of stadiums. Soccer, baseball, football, hockey, lacrosse, basketball, you name it, and I’ve probably seen it firsthand. Except for golf. Don’t get me started on golf.

But anyway, I always find that stadiums that are nicely ensconced within a neighborhood never fail to provide the best pre-game atmosphere. Maybe it’s because I’m not the tailgating-type. It very well could be. But, nothing beats the buzz that resides on a typically-quiet-except-for-today local street.

And that’s exactly how it was outside of the stadium. There was an energy that weaved through the surrounding streets. Something was taking place. An event. And people were excited, drunk, happy, elated, giddy, all of the above, etc.

That’s the thing: you don’t get that brand of buzz when you go to Gillette Stadium or RFK Stadium. That’s not to say that the festivities surrounding these venues is drab or dull. By no means. I think the Midnight Riders and Screaming Eagles regularly unleash a great deal of atmosphere around their parks. I do. Yet, I think there’s a difference between going to an event at a stadium and going to a stadium for an event.

As I strolled along Avenida 7, I saw a wide array of people. Vendors. Customers. Old men. Young men. Supporters. Supporters’ girlfriends. It’s probably close to 96 degrees outside, and it’s not even 11am. Only something they truly cared about – something they loved – could bring them all out en masse on a day like this.

The next thing that grabbed me is the police presence. A van full of cops, decked out in full riot gear, like the ones that crashed into Howard Payne’s home in Speed casually appear in the middle of the street. And no one seems notice or care. One by one, they begin in to quickly slip into the stadium.

Minutes before the match, I strolled over to the ticket gates. A lanky teenager patted me down for weapons. Next up: my slipsack bag. Although I had an arsenal of bottled beverages, snacks, and a umbrella stashed away, he gives me a nod and steps away. After all, silly American tourists like me don’t come here to shank supporters.

I sat square in front of the center circle, amid a throng of especially vocal supporters. When the Alajuelense’s late-morning opponent, Perez Zeledon, trekked off the pitch after its pre-match passing drills, they were ceremoniously showered by thousands of whistling home supporters.

As if I hadn’t already entered another dimension before the match began, the riot police showed up in gaggles along the touchline once the opening whistle screeched. They were ready. And soon, they would be needed.

Moments after the opening goal fifteen minutes through, the home and away threw down for an old fashioned stadium tussle. Arms were grabbed. Batons where whipped. Within seconds, order was restored….until the second goal was scored five minutes before halftime, when fists flew again, only this time, the police managed to taser and arrest a few hooligans. It was first time I’d ever seen anyone get tasered in real life. Insanity doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Aside from the SWAT team, the constant screams of “PUNTA!” toward the PZ players, and the unglamorous concrete stands, the most interesting aspect of a soccer match in Costa Rica is that each touch, pass, tackle, and run is simultaneously dissected by the crowd, and instantly graded with either applause, whistling, or swears. This continued on for the entire ninety. It still amazes me even now.

It was an education. An education that no college, high school, or preschool could’ve provided.

God, I love Costa Rica.


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