In their first World Cup, Costa Rica's women, who have a rich history in the sport, have proven that they belong on the grand stage, despite obstacles along the way.
Regardless of the outcome of their final group match, against a heavily favored Brazilian squad—which will either be looking to find some rhythm or resting key players heading into the knockout round—the Costa Rican women’s team has been an impressive debutant in the tournament. Two hard fought draws against Spain and South Korea, the most recent on an 89th minute equalizer, have shown the ticas' heart.
This, despite the distraction presented just weeks ago when Costa Rican federation president Eduardo Li, a strong supporter of women’s soccer, was among the FIFA officials arrested. But this is not a team that likes to make excuses.
Costa Rica qualified for the World Cup by beating Mexico for the first time during the group stage of the CONCACAF women's championship, and then defeating Trinidad and Tobago in the semifinals. It was a tight game, with Costa Rica dominant early but fading late. The ticas held on through extra time, and in penalty kicks the Costa Rican keeper, Dinnia Díaz, carried the team to the World Cup by blocking all three shots she faced (though wound up losing the Golden Glove honors to USA's Hope Solo, who was tested considerably less in the tournament).
Strangely, shortly after the ticas qualified, their coach, Carlos “Gabaret” Avedessian, left for the less green pastures of the Puerto Rican Soccer Federation, leaving the team rudderless with five months to go before Canada. Another potential distraction. Another potential excuse.
Quickly, however, 28-year-old Amelia Valverde took the reins of the team. The team had made public its preference for someone else, former coach Karla Alemán. But Valverde had been an assistant with the women’s team under Avedessian and his predecessors, guaranteeing some continuity with the old system.
She is one of a crop of young female coaches—including Ecuador's Vanessa Arauz (25), Thailand's Nuengruethai Sathongwien (43), Ivory Coasts's Clémentine Toure (45), and Switzerland's Martina Voss-Tecklenberg (47)—who will hopefully have a positive impact on the women’s game. From the sidelines, in her thick glasses, she has been energetically urging on her team, helping to lead them to a series of remarkable results.
The core of the World Cup team played together in 2008 in the U-17 tournament, which has helped them stick together in the midst of these disruptions. But they also have a confidence that may come from the deep history of women’s soccer in Costa Rica, which stretches back to 1949. Though it is new to the FIFA World Cup, Costa Rica is closer to the Grand Dames of Central American soccer than it is to a white-gloved debutant.
Deportivo Femenino Costa Rica began when Fernando and Manuel Bonilla began discussing the idea of forming a women’s soccer team with their sister and her friends. Within weeks they had transformed a field on the family’s property into a soccer field, and soon over 30 young women arrived to be molded into futbolistas. In June, 1950, the team played an exhibition match in the National Stadium in San José. Expectations for the game were anything but high. Journalists, who believed that the sport was one of “masculine ink,” expressed surprise that the game was “a splendid sporting spectacle” instead of an arrhythmic “ballet on the field.” One player recalled later that, by the end of the first half “the crowd had to eat the tomatoes and oranges they had brought to hurl at us.”
Women’s soccer developed in a society in transition. A 1948 Civil War had swept out the old oligarchy and ushered in a new government, which sought to end the political infighting that had destabilized the country for decades. The next year saw a new Constitution that dissolved the army and gave women the right to vote. Though the women’s movement had been active for decades prior, suffrage generated renewed debate about the role of women in Costa Rican society.
In this context, women’s soccer developed in the country, both reflecting a new openness highlighting the limits of change.
After a second set of exhibition matches, Deportivo Femenino went on extended tours of Central America and the Caribbean. A photograph from 1950 shows the team about to board a plane to Panama for a series of exhibition matches dressed in military-style uniforms: skirts cut just below the knee, blazers and white shirts, and garrison caps. The team then traveled to Curação for 10 days, where thousands of spectators watched a series of exhibition matches. In April 1951, the Honduran press lauded Deportivo Femenino, noting that many on the team played with more skill than the majority of men on Honduran professional teams.
Deportivo Femenino inspired other countries to experiment with a women’s version of the national game. In Guatemala, for example, Club Fútbol Femenino Cibeles formed and invited the ticas to play a series of matches in May 1951.
In Honduras too, women’s soccer developed in the wake of the Costa Rican tour, with women’s leagues forming in both Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
The Costa Rican team toured Colombia as well, and by the late 1960s a nighttime 5-on-5 women’s soccer league had developed as a regular fixture in Bogotá. A six-month stay in Mexico in 1963 may well have been the impetus for Mexican women’s soccer.
The women did get some pushback for playing. In Colombia, the Costa Rican team that toured in 1960 created a minor international incident: they were stopped at the border, causing the cancelation of games, because the team’s uniforms did not conform to Colombia’s morality laws. The shorts revealed too much of the young women’s legs. At home there had been controversy as well.
In response to the complaints of some citizens, the Costa Rican Senate convened hearings on the supposed threat posed to girls’ health by soccer. Medical experts testified in San José to discuss a possible ban on the sport. Many believed in the potential deleterious effects soccer had on girls’ health and considered the sport a threat to women’s, and ultimately the nation’s, health. Unlike England and Brazil—which banned women’s soccer in 1921 and 1941 respectively—Costa Rica decided not to prohibit women’s soccer.
Without official opposition, other women’s teams began to form in Costa Rica. Femenino La Libertad (1950), Evita de Perón by (1952), América, ODECA, and Independiente (mid-1950s) all formed part of the new Women’s Association of Costa Rican Soccer, which remained active at least until the 1970s. Still, unofficial opposition existed. Many of the players lied to their parents and faced punishment (sometimes physical), or sacrificed relationships in order to spend Sunday on fields just outside the capital to practice the sport they loved.
Until recently women’s and girls soccer received little support from the Costa Rican federation. Even after qualifying for the World Cup, according to one player, team members got around 45,000 colones ($84) per month during training. And while Shirley Cruz plays for Paris St. Germain’s women’s team and a few other ticas play in the United States, the majority work during the day to support themselves.
Lixy Rodriguez, for example, milks cows at her father’s small dairy farm in order to have money to train. Carolina Venegas, on the other hand, quit her job at a 24-hour call center because she was unable to get enough sleep before getting to the fields for training at 5 a.m.
While support has grown, in other words, there is still a long way to go. If Costa Rican women’s teams are going to shine on the international stage, they will have to bring together the deep tradition that has been sustained by players since the 1940s with financial support from their federations. On the pitch in Canada, the ticas have already shown that they deserve that, and that there may be no limit to what they ultimately accomplish.
Joshua Nadel is author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America (2014). His work has also appeared in The Telegraph, and the Washington Post. He is currently working on a book with Brenda Elsey entitled Futbolera: The History of Women and Sports in Latin America. He teaches at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. He can be followed on Twitter @jhnadel.