Small Costa Rica gives troubled Central America big boost at World Cup

A win for Costa Rica against the Netherlands today could help unite – at least momentarily – this fractured, troubled region. Central America is the world’s deadliest region outside an active war zone.

Ricardo Mazalan
Costa Rica's Celso Borges, left, and Greece's Giorgos Samaras battle for the ball during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Costa Rica and Greece.

In San José's Plaza de la Democracia last Sunday, thousands of fans fixated on the giant screen projecting the World Cup match against Greece. One fan waved his tattered red, white, and blue Costa Rican flag tied to a bamboo pole, as if this small Central American country, in winning in overtime penalty kicks, had just conquered the world.

For the first time ever, Costa Rica has made it to the World Cup quarterfinals, and is the only Central American team left standing. Today, “La Sele,” as the National soccer team is known, faces off against the Netherlands. And another win for Costa Rica could help – at least momentarily – unite this fractured, troubled region.

Sky-high murder rates, drug-trafficking violence, poor job prospects, and, most recently, the crisis of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing these conditions for the United States are among the region’s most pressing challenges. The number of unaccompanied minors caught trying to illegally cross the US-Mexico border surged in June and could reach 90,000 by the end of the year. 

"There’s not a lot of positive news [in Central America], which is why Costa Rica’s remarkable performance gives the region something to cheer about,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Central America remains the world’s deadliest region outside an active war zone, according to 2012 homicide statistics released in April by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Honduras has one of the world’s highest murder rates (90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants), followed by El Salvador (41.2 per 100,000), and Guatemala (39.9 per 100,000). Costa Rica’s murder rate is by far the lowest in the region, coming in at 8.5 murders per 100,000 the same year.

“I think what ... victory does is remind people that Central America is more than the Northern Triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras], which these days are often most famous for violence and outmigration,” says Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Soccer mending bilateral ties?

Excitement over Costa Rica’s newfound prowess on the pitch is spilling over its borders, even to Nicaragua, a country with which it shares a tense relationship. The feuding neighbors are embroiled in a protracted border dispute, and recently elected President Luis Guillermo Solís did not invite Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to his inauguration as a result. 

Nicaragua has never qualified for the World Cup. Yet after Nicaragua-born Oscar Duarte headed in the second of Costa Rica's three goals against Uruguay on June 14, he became not only the first Nicaraguan to score in the World Cup but helped spark a flood of Nicaraguan love for Costa Rican soccer.

Levi Luna, sports director for the TN8 television station in Managua, says that in Nicaragua there is a strong interest in seeing Costa Rica come out victorious, in part because of Duarte’s feats on the field. 

“I think even beyond [Durate], though, there’s been interest in Costa Rica as a Central American team, for the surprise and impact it’s had,” Mr. Luna says.

Duarte landed a red card in the match against Greece last Sunday, which means he won’t be on the pitch today. But Luna says he still expects Nicaraguan fans to tune in to cheer for their neighbors.   

Taking Costa Rica's victories beyond the soccer field?

“Whenever a small country makes it this far, which isn’t often, especially from a region that’s not Europe, it’s a major achievement,” says Ms. Olson. “It shows that a country like Costa Rica can play in the major leagues.”

President Solís agrees – and hopes to take victory a step further. “In economy, education, politics, culture, Costa Rica is ready to do much more, and this shows that,” Solís told reporters after La Sele finished at the top of the challenging World Cup Group D, made up of Uruguay, Italy, and England. 

“In the short term, this is a great thing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work for it. Any long-term benefit to the country is the result of hard work from everyone, not just the efforts of our boys in Brazil,” the president said, wearing a red team jersey.

Despite Costa Rica’s wins at the World Cup thus far, Mr. Shifter warns that the feel-good energy sweeping up fans across Central America isn’t likely to overcome the region’s longterm struggles with mutual distrust and bilateral disputes.

“It’s a great story, there’s a sense of good feelings," Shifter says. "But it’ll be over on July 15.”

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