On June 5, the players of Barrio Mexico walked off their home field at Coyella Fonseca Stadium as they watched the white-and-green-clad players of Limón FC embrace and celebrate. In a two-game series to determine which Second Division team would be making the leap up to the First Division, Limón trounced Barrio Mexico by an aggregate score of 5-1. The Carribeños from Limón were moving up, while Barrio Mexico was staying in the Second Division for a 26th consecutive season.
If someone had told the players of Barrio Mexico, which represents the north San José neighborhood of the same name, that in four months time they would reach the First Division, seize first place in Group A and take a 12-point lead over defending champion and perennial leader Saprissa, they would have dismissed it as a fairy tale.
But sports can sometimes bring improbable fairy tales to life.
A little over a month after losing to Limón, the owner of Barrio Mexico, Minor Vargas, began talks with Mario Sotela, the owner of Liberia Mía, a First Division team based in Liberia, in the northwest Guanacaste province. Sotela, who also owns the Africa Mía Zoo in Liberia, had fallen upon financial hard times and was said to be unable to pay his players the exorbitant contracts he had promised them.
After several discussions among Vargas, Sotela and the Union of Soccer Clubs (UNAFUT), the two teams agreed to arrange a peculiar franchise flip-flop. Barrio Mexico would assume Liberia Mía’s spot in the First Division, while Liberia Mía would take Barrio Mexico’s Second Division spot, under the name Aguilas. While the franchise would still retain the name Liberia Mía, Barrio Mexico would compete in the First Division for the fall season.
“We arrived at an agreement with the two involved clubs whereby there will not be a change or exchange of franchises, but they will simply implement a mechanism that will allow the teams to remain in the leagues where they belong,” said Eduardo Li, president of the Costa Rican Soccer Federation (Fedefutbol), the sport’s overall governing body in the country. “With this solution, we don’t affect either league. The franchise of Liberia Mía will remain in the First Division and the franchise of Barrio Mexico in the Second Division. Only the names (of the teams playing) under the franchise will change.”
But a lot more than just names have changed. The unorthodox chemistry experiment appears to have brewed a new First Division powerhouse.
Amid the team reshuffle, many players and coaches scattered. Players from Liberia Mía jumped to other teams, and Barrio Mexico, which had already lost several players and their coach from the spring season, was looking at a potential player shortage. With only a few weeks remaining before the first game of the season, coach Marvin Solano, who took over the helm in late June, had to patch a team together.
According to Solano, a longtime journeyman on the national and international coaching scene, when he was told his team would play in the First Division, he knew he’d stumbled upon an unusual opportunity.
“I took the job thinking I was going to be a Second Division coach and a month into the job was told we’d been in the First Division,” Solano said. “I’d coached in the First Division but always joined a team late in the season or when the chips were already down. I never had the opportunity to take a new team, with new players and implement a fresh mentality.”
After the agreement with Liberia Mía was finalized, Solano set out to find players for his team. Though several teammates played previously with Liberia Mía and several with Barrio Mexico, Solano wanted to create a team of players who, like him, had potential but hovered on the periphery, never quite finding their niche.
“I wanted a chance to play for a team that would let me see the field more and give me the opportunity to score,” said Maykol Ortiz, the leading scorer for Barrio Mexico with five goals. “Last year I didn’t play much for Brujas (FC) and never felt like I had the chance to show what I could do. I knew I could have that opportunity playing with Barrio Mexico.”
Ortiz’s story is similar to that of many of Barrio Mexico’s players. Some have played extensively in the First Division, some sparingly and some are seeing their first professional playing experience this season.
“We’re very, very young and hardly anyone knows the names of the players on this team,” Solano said. “But that’s good. There aren’t a lot of egos and they are all willing to listen and adjust to the way a good team should be.”
Solano says that a few weeks before the season, he took his team to the beaches of the Pacific to train to get to know one another and establish goals for the season. One goal Solano set had nothing to do with results, but with attitude.
“There is a Tico attitude among Costa Rican players that you don’t find in other countries,” Solano said. “Here, our players rarely give extra effort. After practice, they don’t stay and do extra sprints, they go home. In other countries, you don’t see that. Players get to practice early and stay late. That is the type of mentality that we need here.”
Through the first 10 games of the First Division winter season, the Mexicanistas, as they’re called, are running away with Group A. With only six league games remaining, Barrio Mexico has 23 points, 10 more than second place Cartaginés from Cartago, 12 more than San José’s Saprissa and 13 more than Limón, the team that dashed their First Division hopes just months ago. Barrio Mexico has won seven games, lost only one and tied two. They have scored 17 goals while allowing only eight in 10 games.
The biggest win of the season came on Aug. 19 when the new kids from Barrio Mexico knocked off Saprissa, 3-2. Saprissa has won 27 First Division league titles and is the long-reigning king of Costa Rican soccer.
“For some of our younger guys, they were playing against their boyhood heroes on Saprissa,” said Verny Scott, the captain of Barrio Mexico. “But we weren’t intimidated. We believe we’re as good as anybody and we’re proving it. We have our goals set on qualifying for the playoffs but if we make it there, then we’ll set our sights on the championship. I think we’ve got as good an opportunity to win it as anybody.”