There’s something apt that a country in which the phrase “pura vida” (pure life) is almost a national motto should be the first in the Americas to see the return of first-division soccer.
Costa Rica’s Liga FPD bounced back — behind closed doors — on Tuesday when Guadalupe defeated Limon, 1-0, and LD Alajuelense won 2-0 at C.S. Cartagines, a little over two months since the Clausura season was suspended after 15 rounds of matches due to the coronavirus pandemic. The revised schedule will have the remaining seven rounds of matches in the regular season played both midweek and on weekends, followed by the playoffs and the two-legged Grand Final set for June 28 and July 1 (The Costa Rican top flight is available on ESPN Deportes and the full schedule can be found here).
“We want, through this return to the pitch, to send a message and a positive image, not just for our society, but also to the whole world that Costa Rica can do it, [which is] distinct from other countries, including world powers, that haven’t been able to,” Union of First Division Clubs (UNAFUT) president Julian Solano said on the announcement last week.
Solano’s statement may appear bullish, even borderline arrogant, but while the Bundesliga has been attracting plaudits as the European model to follow, the Central American country has become something of an example regionally.
The Clausura season was suspended on March 17, a day after the Costa Rican government declared a state of emergency. Yet players in Costa Rica were back in training on May 1.
“We know that the more we look after ourselves, the quicker we will get back to playing,” said Alajuelense midfielder Dylan Flores following that first training session back.
Flores’ words and outlook could almost be a summary of the whole nation’s response.
Costa Rica was the first in Central America to confirm a coronavirus case back on March 6, but as of last Saturday, the country with the population of 5 million had a relatively low 853 positive cases and a total of 10 deaths attributed to the virus.
Strict measures were put in place by the government, including no driving at night, closing the international borders and temporarily shutting down nonessential businesses. And it appears like they were heeded by the population, flattening the curve and allowing beaches, hotels, theaters and national parks to open last Saturday.
“We don’t spend on an army, but we do invest in health, social security and in education, and that has been very important,” public health expert Luis Villalobos told BBC Mundo.
On the soccer side, clubs acted swiftly and decisively, which is easier in a smaller country and with only 12 first-division clubs, but it contrasted sharply with Costa Rica’s northern neighbor, Nicaragua, where football wasn’t put on hold at all, to the dismay of some players.
The Costa Rican clubs formed a medical commission in early April, made up of club doctors and with epidemiology experts advising. They drew up a sanitary protocol for training and eventually a resumption of the league. Published on May 11 (five days after the German Bundesliga announced its return), the 16-page, government-approved plan was a proactive move designed to show that the league was ready to roll out when the country opened up.
“Football has been responsible because we anticipated this,” said Saprissa doctor Esteban Campos in a news conference. “If we would have waited, we’d still be beginning to draw [the protocol] up.
“This protocol has taken a month and a half to elaborate because we knew sooner or later we’d need it,” continued Campos, indicating that the protocol is likely to extend into next season.
There won’t be mass testing of the players, with Solano saying the government hasn’t stated that should happen.
Inside each club, three employees will be in charge of making sure the appropriate procedures are carried out, and club doctors are responsible for notifying the league immediately about any suspect cases.
Stadiums and locker rooms are to be disinfected, and visiting teams must travel on the day of the game if the drive is less than four hours; stops at service stations are not recommended, and only one player per double seat is allowed on the bus. On the few occasions that the journey is over four hours, the club must write to UNAFUT to set out the sanitary conditions at the hotel, and players won’t be allowed to share rooms.
Home team players are advised to turn up to the stadium already in their kit and shouldn’t carpool on their way in; they will arrive one hour before kick-off and leave a maximum of one hour after the final whistle. Everybody will have their temperature checked on arrival.
Water and hydration drinks will be labeled for individual players, who won’t be greeting each other before or after the games, with any kind of spitting also banned.
The 18 players from each squad, plus a maximum of eight members of coaching staff, who all must wear face masks, will be allowed into the stadium, with extra seating brought in to keep subs separated. For away clubs, only a sporting director/president and a press officer will be permitted to enter the stadium, aside from the squad and coaching staff.
Goal celebrations shouldn’t be done in a group, according to the protocol, and players are encouraged to change their whole kit at half-time.
There are also tight restrictions on media access and nonessential staff, with just four paramedics allowed and four ball collectors, as well as four elements of private security. Match commissioners should be under the age of 60, if possible.
“We started the protocol from zero, it is 100% made in Costa Rica and by Costa Rican doctors,” said Campos, adding that clubs and leagues from around the region have asked about the protocol.
Another issue that has becoming fractious globally during this present crisis has been that of players’ wages and how and if clubs should be responsible for paying them in full when incomes have been drastically reduced due to the crisis.
It doesn’t appear to have caused as much commotion in Costa Rica, where the players’ association (Asojupro) and the clubs came to a deal as early as March 24, one week after the season had been suspended.
“We are the first association in the world to achieve an agreement that will allow players to continue to bring in a living to their homes,” said Alejandro Sequeira, president of Asojupro. “We are proud because through dialogue, we’ve found a consensus, and we thank UNAFUT and the Costa Rican football federation for their consent and empathy.”
The agreement, which came into play retroactively from March 15 and lasts until June 30, says players who are making less than $900 get paid in full. Those who are earning over that amount will receive that amount plus 50% of their salary. And when the league returns, players are to get 75% if playing in front of fans or 60% if playing behind closed doors, as is now the case.
“We negotiated under three premises, the first being that they weren’t sure of the present or future situations,” said Luis Sanchez, labor law expert and advisor to Asojupro. “That unknown translates to clubs’ finances.”
One of the only hiccups so far has been that a handful of foreign players — mainly Mexicans — left quickly to be with their families and haven’t been able to get back for the restart, but it’s a minor bump in what has been a much smoother road for Costa Rica than it has for many world leagues.
Pura vida indeed.
Top things to know about Costa Rica’s first-division restart
— Saprissa is currently top of the league, four points ahead of Alajuelense and seven from Herediano.
— The top four in the regular-season table go into the playoffs. However, if the first-place finisher in the regular season doesn’t win the playoff, a “grand final” is played, giving an extra incentive to regular-season performance.
— The biggest game of the week is on Wednesday, when the country’s most successful club, Saprissa, takes on reigning champion Herediano.
— Unlike the Bundesliga, the times of the games in Costa Rica will be largely staggered, meaning people can watch the vast majority on TV.
— The game not to miss is the Clasico Nacional between Alajuelense and Saprissa on May 31, especially with both fighting at the top of the league.
— Saprissa was the last non-Mexican team to win the CONCACAF Champions League (2005), with the Keylor Navas-inspired side finishing in third place at the FIFAClub World Championship.
Estefan Monge contributed to this feature.