I watched the first World Cup game at my friend’s family’s house. We paid two mil colones (about $4) to the host to help cover the cost of food, we sipped on beer we brought ourselves, we took chili guaro shots, and we ate plantain and beef stew out of plastic bowls. In an empty garage a projector displayed the Costa Rica v. Uruguay game on the wall. Her cousins from both sides, neighbors, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends folded themselves into every corner of the room. They stood and sat on couches, chairs, makeshift stools, and even the floor.
They were a sea of red soccer jerseys and once Costa Rica won they were a hurricane. As if the floor itself was kicking them up, they jumped perpetually. They ran to each other in frantic patterns, screaming, as they exchanged hugs and high fives. The footage on the TV relayed similar storms: a bouncing frantic stadium, Costa Ricans already running to riot with each other in la Fuente de Hispanidad of San Jose. And I wasn’t as jumpy or as scream-y as the 40 odd Costa Rican’s that surrounded me in my friend’s Aunt’s house, but they hugged me too.
At first I didn’t understand the excitement, we’d only just won our first game in the first round of the World Cup, surely it wasn’t that big of a deal. But my friend explained to me that Costa Rica wasn’t even really supposed to qualify for the World Cup and they certainly weren’t supposed to win.
The disbelief in the victory was evident. “Mae, no puedo creer que ganamos,” everyone in the garage kept on saying. Man, I can’t believe we won. I can’t believe we won.
And then I started saying it: I can’t believe we won. I can’t believe we won.
I can’t believe we won, I said to the taxi driver dropping me off at a friend’s house later that night.
Whose we? he said.
You’re not from here, he said.
Well, I’ve been here for so long that I feel a little tica, I said. I explained that I had been living here for 6 months. He shrugged his shoulders.
Why couldn’t I claim a little Costa Rican national pride? I went to school at the UCR like a tica, I ate rice and beans every day like a tica, I even did my make-up on the bus when I was running late like a tica. I was a little Costa Rican—I had earned it—so I tried not to care what the taxi driver said. Costa Rica winning could be my winning too, could be me winning too.
Some of my friends and I watched Costa Rica’s second World Cup game in a bar. Or rather we started to watch the second World Cup game in a bar, but then the television signal on the entire block went out and we were forced to relocate. We settled for standing in the street outside of a strip of other bars with about 30 Costa Ricans who hadn’t been able to get in before the establishments reached capacity either. We squinted our eyes against the bright sun and craned our necks to view televisions hanging within the open-air bars.
This time Costa Rica winning was an explosion. Girls shot themselves up onto their guy friends’ shoulders. The sky erupted with red, white and blue flags. Arms flailed spastically, as if they were being sporadically yanked towards the sky by invisible puppet strings. Everyone was screaming, clapping, laughing, and crying.
Tonight we eat pizza! They started chanting, mocking the Italians.
I found some of my Costa Rican classmates there, we hugged each other and screamed We WON!.
We won. We won. We won. We all kept saying it.
My friend’s cousin came up to me.
Are you going to la fuente?
Yeah I think so.
Okay I hope I see you there, and (as custom) he kissed me on the cheek and left.
La fuente is a large rotunda that connects several areas of San Pedro and leads to the center of San Jose. After the second win, it was already becoming tradition for Costa Ricans to congregate there and celebrate the victory. La fuente celebrations mainly involve running, dancing, and jumping in circles around the rotunda as people play drums, blow horns, sing, scream, wave flags, and light things on fire. In the center of la fuente or around the edges you can watch the systemic circling, like a human river with unpredictable currents and sudden lopsided whirl-pools. You see everyone you know there—Costa Rican classmates, other exchange students, the boy your friend when on a date with that one time, your cool European friends that all live together in the hostel up the street—and groups congeal together forming pockets of familiarity among the chaos. Everyone has a drink in their hand, open-container is not legal in Costa Rica but instead of enforcing the law the cops stand by and watch the delincuency like chaperones at a middle-school dance. Super markets selling alcohol become like clubs—as lines form and bouncers stand outside only permitting a certain amount of people to enter at a time. Eventually super markets and bars alike run out of alcohol to sell, but the whirl pool at la fuente continues. The busses shut down for hours due to the impossible foot traffic. It lasts for hours. It always lasts for hours, and as the Cup continues, sometimes la fuente goes for too long and other times its not enough.
I watched the third game at a bar by my university. We were already qualified to move onto the second round so it wasn’t as exciting. We tied. Afterwards I went to class, but other people stormed the fuente anyway.
I watched the fourth game at my friend’s host family’s house. I didn’t have to pay for a plate this time but I did bring the host a large bottle of Imperial (the national cerveza de Costa Rica) in order to say thank you. Old, young, foreign, and native, we all watched the game together, we all screamed for Costa Rica together, and we all watched the game go past over time and into penalty kicks together.
There is no way we can win, I kept thinking. There is no way we can win.
But we did. I don’t remember the specifics. I don’t remember who from our team scored or who from their team didn’t. But I do remember singing with my arms around my friend’s 60 year old host mom and her two other friends. I remember jumping in a car and heading towards the fuente once again. It was even larger than the last time. More screaming. More horns. More music. And a new chant: “MATAMOS GIGANTES” or WE SLAY GIANTS! This victory marked the farthest Costa Rica had ever gotten in any World Cup tournament ever. It was a miracle. This tiny little country, smaller than Colorado, was beating some of the largest soccer nations in the world. Costa Rica was unstoppable. Or that’s what it felt like anyway.
I watched the last game Costa Rica played on the beach at an open air bar, sitting Indian style on the floor with one eye on the television and another on the ocean. Unfamiliar Costa Ricans surrounded my friends and I, but no one felt like a stranger. We hoped. We prayed. We survived double overtime and went into penalty kicks, but eventually we lost. We lost and we weren’t supposed to lose. This was the year of miracles, Costa Rica was supposed to win. But according to the ticos who surrounded me, Cost Rica had already won. The other Ticos cheered at the defeat. The Costa Ricans on the TV were still congregating in la fuente and in a few hours a concert would erupt. In the weeks following the defeat the Costa Rican news stations were filled with clips of the world cup games, bios of the players on the national team, and alleged news about the goalie of the team possibly going to play for Real Madrid (he would be he first Costa Rican in history to do so). When the players came home from Brasil they were greeted by a parade. The nation was smiling. The nation was proud. The nation was the whos down in whoville after the Grinch stole Christmas, holding hands and singing. The nation was grateful.
It was in the aftermath of the Costa Rican defeat that I finally realized that the taxi driver was in the right when he challenged my proclamation of we won after the first game. I could not claim Costa Rica’s victories as my own because I am not–and will never be—truly Costa Rican.
Because no matter how much time I spend here I will never be able to understand what it is like to be from here. I will never understand what it is like to be from a small country, to be from a humble country. To be from a country that is often exploited, dismissed, and underestimated. To be from a country that declared war on Germany in World War II (even before the US) only to have Hitler ask “Who is Costa Rica?” and ignore them [or so local folklore goes]. To be from a country that is ignored. To be from a country that is unknown. I will never understand what it is to be a citizen of a country in which not losing as quickly as we expected to in an international sports tournament is something that merits universal and impenetrable national pride.
So in the next ten years of my life, I’m sure I will forget the importance of the Costa Rica’s victories in the world cup. I won’t remember the face of the captain or what round Costa Rica was in when they lost or even who they eventually lost too (it was the Dutch). But Costa Rica won’t forget, because defeating large powerful countries in the Cup wasn’t just a sports tournament. It was an international event in which Costa Rica wasn’t ignored or exploited. It was an event in which they made history for themselves. It was a global event in which they felt they mattered.