When I landed in Costa Rica back in 2003, I was pretty underprepared. This was my wife’s trip. She planned it and sweated the details. I packed my backpack (and actually remembered my underwear, for once), got on the plane and went along for the ride.
Unfortunately, this means I had little concept of the awesome soccer culture of Costa Rica. We woke up the day after our flight to a soccer mania that, we learned, would literally sweep the nation. We had little idea of this until we boarded a shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. As I got on the bus, I noticed that the driver, one of three employees on the bus, was decked out in purple: some sort of purple jersey, purplish jeans and even purple mirrored sunglasses.
As we drove off, I asked the older employee, who seemed to be the boss, what the deal was.
“Is for Saprissa, the football team. We are playing today against Alajuela, our rival. It is very big game,” he explained.
And wouldn’t you know it! Our route would take us straight through the heart of Alajuela, where fans of La Liga Alajuelense were parading up and down the streets in their striped jerseys. Our driver, apparently not one to let a sleeping dog lie, leered at, wagged his tongue at, gesticulated at and honked his horn at roving mobs of Alajuelense supporters. Everywhere we went, La Liga fans were boring holes in our bus with our eyes. And mind you, the match hadn’t even started yet!
The bus crew explained to me that Saprissa is the biggest team – which I took with a grain of salt, because every Leeds United fan in England will still insist that their team is “a massive club.” But Saprissa was apparently ahead on points, but La Liga had had their number for the past few seasons. A victory today would be a famous win for the ages.
We made a stop halfway to La Fortuna at a roadside market. And they sold soccer shirts, so I could get in the mania! They mostly had La Liga and Saprissa. I selected an extra large Saprisa knock-off jersey (really more like a large in U.S. sizes) and stepped up to the register.
“No, no!” the clerk objected, pointing at a La Liga shirt. “You have to support the local team!”
I insisted on the glowing purple Saprissa shirt, which set me back something like $17 … I can’t remember what that was in colones. Anyway, I came out of the store with my new Saprissa shirt, and the bus crew saw it. They start whooping, patting me on the back, shaking my hand and high-fiving until their arms were about to fall off. They also clued me in, saying the club’s nickname is El Monstruo, or The Monster. That Jarvis Drummond is a god. And all sorts of other things I can scarcely remember.
By the time we got to La Fortuna, the match had started. The bus crew wanted to drop everyone off quickly and get to a TV. The clerk at Las Colinas could barely tear himself away to check us in, but he was really friendly and wanted us to get to a TV to watch, too. We headed to a nearby restaurant for a helping of gallo pinto. There, they had a TV. And all of La Fortuna was urging Saprissa on. Televisions everywhere were blaring. The entire town cheered, groaned and gasped in unison.
By the time were left the restaurant, La Fortuna was in rapture: Saprissa battered La Liga 4-1, breaking the cross-town rival’s hold on the derby. The entire town was upbeat.
And here’s the funny thing: About that time, I noticed that my sunglasses were gone. They must’ve slipped off sometime in the bus. Which meant I’d have to grab a cheap pair of sunglasses somewhere … bummer, I really liked those Spys.
But the next day, Sarah and I were having a morning stroll. We heard a bus honking behind us. Behind the wheel was my purple-wearing friend, waving my Spys out the window. We exchanged more handshakes, and they were on their way back to San Jose. Think they would’ve done that had I bought a La Liga shirt?!
As we traveled through Costa Rica, a theme repeated itself: I would meet a resident, and we’d talk a bit. Inevitably, I’d ask if they supported Saprissa. And nearly to the word, they’d say “I am THE BIGGEST Saprissa fan!!!”
I only ran into on La Liga fan: She was employed at the airport by Costa Rica’s version of the TSA. As she was screening me, she noticed a flash of purple jersey under my long-sleeve Lost Dutchman Marathon shirt.
“Tu eres Saprissista?” she growled, raising an eyebrow. That’s when she pulled me out of the line, gave me a wink and proceeded with the full-service search.
Be careful where you wear your Saprissa shirt, kids …