SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – This is a land of natural beauty, of pristine beaches, lush rain forests, active volcanoes and rich biodiversity. The army disbanded 65 years ago. The government boasts the oldest democracy in Latin America.
The national mantra is “Pura Vida” – in essence, pure life.
Costa Rica is the last rest stop before the exit to heaven.
For the U.S. national soccer team, it is pure hell.
Tranquility belies a history of unpleasant visits and masks the fury that awaits the Americans on Friday night at National Stadium for a 2014 World Cup qualifying match.
What is it like to play in San Jose? Picture a Metallica concert wrapped in nationalism fueled by alcohol and pushed along by the lust for a place in the planet’s most popular sporting event next summer in Brazil.
“They are very proud, they are very passionate, they are very intense,” said Juergen Klinsmann, whose U.S. squad has lost six straight in this city. “They live soccer, 24/7. And they dream of the World Cup. You sense that from the moment you put your foot down in those places [in Central America].
“It’s wonderful. It’s another kind of challenge to understand what it means to the people here, to adjust to it and prove yourself in a difficult and different environment.”
Ticos, as the Costa Rican team and population are known, have never lacked motivation in the build-up to an important game. They are further galvanized this time by the previous qualifier between the teams: a 1-0 U.S. victory during a Denver blizzard in March.
Long after FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, upheld the result, Costa Rica continues to howl about the frosty conditions (conveniently forgetting it had just as many quality scoring chances in the surreal setting and several of its players are employed by cold-weather European clubs).
As retribution for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s selection of the Colorado venue, the Costa Ricans have made things more difficult than usual for the visitors:
No special treatment passing through customs and immigration; fans tossing eggs at the team bus outside the airport terminal; owners of three proposed practice facilities denying access until finally a dairy farm offered its field; and drivers conspiring to slow traffic on the bus route between the hotel and stadium on game day.
The Americans have taken the high road, refusing to let gamesmanship affect them.
“It adds to the excitement, the build-up, the hype,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “In some ways over the years, it has calmed down a little bit. To now have one that has got cranked back up, it’s exciting.”
The Ticos were not able to implement perhaps their greatest weapon: Saprissa Stadium, an old cauldron where fans are mere feet from the field and the visiting locker room sits a thin layer below the rowdiest supporters’ section. Over the years, U.S. players have been pelted with coins, batteries, beer, bags of urine, even sunglasses.
FIFA has forbidden international matches at Saprissa until the field and lights are upgraded. The Costa Rican federation could not ensure improvements in time for this encounter.
Even when fans were on their best behavior, Saprissa, known as the Monster’s Cave, worked in Costa Rica’s favor because the playing surface is a poor quality of synthetic turf. Several national team players have toiled there for the club of the same name.
The Ticos now play at National Stadium, a two-year-old facility financed and built by China in exchange for Costa Rica dropping relations with Taiwan. The new venue offers natural grass and a running track that serves as a buffer between rabid fans and the field.
“We like our chances playing against this team on a grass field versus turf in a stadium that’s relatively safe versus one that feels relatively unsafe,” U.S. midfielder-forward Landon Donovan said. “In theory, it’s an advantage not to have to play [at Saprissa], but that doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Shenanigans aside, the Ticos see a wonderful opportunity to take a step closer to Brazil. More than halfway through the final round, they are two points behind the first-place United States and in prime position to secure one of the region’s three automatic berths.
The Americans arrived in the Central Valley atop the CONCACAF standings with 13 points from six matches and would secure a spot in the World Cup on Friday with a combination of results: a victory here; a Mexico draw at home against Honduras; and a Panama loss or tie against visiting Jamaica.
With a 12-game winning streak — the longest current run in the world — the Americans are beaming with confidence and do not plan to implement defensive tactics in search of a point on the road.
“We’re not holding back, by any means,” Klinsmann said. “We’ll try to take our game to them and see what they want to do with that. We now have the confidence that, even away from home, that is what we want to do.”