The Unlikely Rivalry Between Costa Rica and the U.S. Began With a Snow Game
The U.S. and Costa Rica meet in Group A play on Tuesday night. It will be the renewal of an unlikely, emerging rivalry.
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The last time U.S. defender Geoff Cameron played a competitive game against Costa Rica, in September 2013, he was given the kind of reception usually saved for a road trip to Mexico or the opposing team stadiums he visits in the English Premier League.
"It wasn't the most friendly," said Cameron, who plays for Stoke City in the EPL.
That's the censored way of putting it.
The team had been greeted by jeering fans at the airport, who chanted "no fair play, USA." Fans got in the players' faces and flipped them the bird, which American defender Omar Gonzalez captured on Instagram.
The mistreatment didn't stop there. The U.S. team bus was egged. None of the recommended practice venues usually used by visiting teams would allow the U.S. to practice there. Costa Rica also didn't provide game balls, a typical courtesy. Even the country's citizens were in on making the Americans' journey hell.
Ultimately, it worked, as Costa Rica prevailed, 3-1.
The U.S. and Costa Rica have played each other 33 times since 1975, mostly without incident. After all, neither of these countries has any reason to dislike the other. Costa Rica is a tropical paradise with half the population of the Chicago metro area. It doesn't even have a military.
But two years ago, after a tense series of World Cup qualifiers, an unlikely rivalry emerged, and it should result in an intense atmosphere when the U.S. and Costa Rica meet in Chicago on Tuesday night in the second match of Group A of the Copa America.
The stakes for both teams are high. Both need a win. Costa Rica drew 0-0 against Paraguay in their opener, and the U.S. was trounced 2-0 by Colombia. A loss for Costa Rica would mean they'd have to beat group favorite Colombia in their final game in order to have a chance to qualify for the next round. A loss for the U.S. would knock them out of the tournament and would bring all kinds of speculation about manager Jurgen Klinsmann's job security.
All that stands in the way of a full fledged soccer controversy at the highest levels of U.S. Soccer is a match against new rival Costa Rica. And who could have thought several years ago that tensions would be so high between the teams?
The U.S. might have been unprepared for what they saw on that trip to Costa Rica in Sept. 2013, but tension with the Ticos began six months earlier in a World Cup Qualifier in Commerce City, Colorado. A blizzard hit the area, but the game was played anyway, despite whiteout conditions and a barely playable pitch. The United States won 1-0. Costa Rica felt cheated.
"It's embarrassing for football and embarrassing for fair play. It's disrespectful to FIFA, the fans, the players and spectacle," former coach Jorge Luis Pinto said. He (unsuccessfully) appealed the result to FIFA. Then-Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla tweeted "What horror!! They're degrading the sport!!!"
Six months later, Costa Rica had not forgotten. But the animosity did not end in Sept. 2013 after the Ticos got their revenge in that 3-1 win.
"Of course, I think in this moment, Costa Rica players feel a little ...," Costa Rica player Johnny Woodly trailed off. "I don't know how to say it, but I think it's changed. It's changed in a positive way, you know."
For Costa Rica, things turned around quickly after that game. The Ticos had missed the World Cup in 2010 — thanks to a U.S. goal, ironically — but they rallied after that win against the U.S. to march all the way to the World Cup Quarterfinals, beating Uruguay and Italy, and drawing England, in the process. The "snow game" served as a sort of rallying cry for the team and its fans.
"(That game) helped us," Costa Rican defender Oscar Duarte said through an interpreter. "I remember after the U.S., it united us ... It gave us a plus for (qualifying).
Woodly wasn't in the lineup for that game, but as a fan in that moment, he felt motivated by his team's effort in Colorado.
"I watched the game on TV, and I think it was a very difficult game, but I think this helped the team have courage to go to the World Cup in Brazil," he said.
Since that game, Costa Rica is 2-0 against the United States, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by U.S. supporters.
"We play them often, and it's recently been heated, and they've recently gotten good enough where it's no longer a gimme," American Outlaws-Chicago president Jake Campbell said, handing Costa Rica a patronizing, little brother-type compliment that every rivalry needs. "They weren't too happy about Denver. We remember that, too. We'll remember that."
The Outlaws, the American supporters group, will commemorate that Colorado game on Tuesday with a snow machine at their tailgate. They'll also be handing out sno-cones to fans.
"It's all in good fun, but yeah, they're a fun team to play," Campbell said.
The Americans' true rival will always be Mexico, but having spirited contests against Costa Rica makes CONCACAF, and this Copa America, a bit more fun. It's something else for fans from both sides to look forward to.
There's no snow in the forecast in Chicago, but with a rivalry that has some newfound spice, don't rule out fireworks.