Costa Rican goalkeeper Keilor Navas was masterful in net and international soccer power Argentina was held scoreless in a, 0-0, draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday night in front of 35,000 at the newly inaugurated National Stadium in La Sabana, in west San José.
In their second game at its new home stadium, La Sele, as the Costa Rican national team is known, held its own against Argentina. The away team is ranked as the fourth-best international side in the world. Costa Rica entered the game ranked 53rd in the world.
“When you play an opponent like Argentina, you have to elevate your level of play in order to compete with them. We were able to do that tonight,” said Costa Rica Coach Ricardo La Volpe, who played with the Argentine national team in the 1970’s. “They are a very good team and we had to play a very good game to get a decent result…If we want to be better than a regular team, we have to play at a higher level every game. We played well tonight and at times looked better than a regular team.”
The star on the night for Costa Rica was Navas, who set the tone for the game with a point-blank save on Argentine forward José Sosa in the 8th minute. Throughout the match, Navas protected the Costa Rican net like the world-class keeper he is becoming. Navas, who plays for Albacete in the Spanish Second Division, swatted away Argentina’s repeated efforts on goal and stayed flawless throughout the night. It has been rumored that several large European teams are interested in acquiring Navas’s goalkeeping duties in the near future.
While Navas kept Argentina scoreless, the Ticos wasted several opportunities of their own. The most promising development of the night was sparked by Costa Rican star Bryan Ruiz, who in the 33rd minute threaded a pass to forward Alvaro Saborio as he sprinted toward the Argentine goal. Instead of attempting a shot to beat onrushing goalkeeper Mariano Andujar, Saborio took a moment to settle the pass and prepare a shot. As Saborio prepared to strike the ball, defender Ezequiel Garay caught up to the play and slid in to poke the ball away.
Late in the match, midfielder Michael Barrantes slipped a pass to Saborio in the 6-yard box. But the sliding forward was unable to get a foot on the ball to redirect it toward the goal.
While Costa Rican fans left the National Stadium pleased with the performance of La Sele, there was heavy disappointment due to Argentina’s decision to keep star player Lionel Messi on the bench throughout the match. In a press conference Monday, Argentina coach Sergio Checho Batista insisted Messi, considered by many to be the world’s best player, would start the match Tuesday night. On Tuesday morning, Messi’s participation in the game was suddenly in jeopardy as it was reported by Argentine media that the star forward wouldn’t play due to pressure from his club team in Spain.
Throughout the day, Costa Rican national media built a frenzy about the will-he-or-won’t-he-play storyline. Several media outlets continued to report Messi would play. Hours later the statements changed to saying he would only play a few minutes in the second half.
As game time neared, the paparazzi-esque coverage of the event continued. News helicopters followed the Argentine bus to the stadium and cameramen brawled among each other as they vied to take a picture of the famed Messi.
In the end, Messi, who stars for the Spanish club Barcelona, emerged from the locker room in shorts, a warm-up shirt and tennis shoes. Surrounded by a team of bodyguards and wearing a stoic, uninterested look, Messi took his place on the Argentine bench with his arms folded. He remained on the bench the rest of the night. Each time Messi’s face was shown on the big screens in the stadium, fans booed and jeered.
“We were told Messi would play and he is who we paid to see,” said Federico Vargas, clad in a Messi Argentina jersey, as he left the game. “I just wish they would have been honest with us from the beginning. If we hadn’t anticipated he would play, we wouldn’t have been so disappointed.”
Messi’s decision not to participate in the game overshadowed the return of Costa Rica’s Ruiz to action. Ruiz, who has been hampered by a knee injury, returned to play Tuesday night for the first time in weeks and sparked the Tico attack. Ruiz, who plays for FC Twente in the Dutch First Division, is widely regarded as Costa Rica’s best player.
On Sunday, La Sele opened up the National Stadium with a, 2-2, tie against China’s national team. The National Stadium was a $100 million gift from the government of China, after the two country’s established ties in 2007.
La Sele will play again in June in the Concacaf Gold Cup – the North, Central America and Caribbean biennial tournament.