Keylor Navas carries the flag for Costa Rica with his standout play for Real Madrid and can add another Champions League title to his resume despite doubts over his quality.
In order to really understand the genius and mindset of Keylor Navas, we only have to go as far as two weeks ago, and the last day of La Liga's season.
Needing just a draw, Real Madrid was leading 1-0 against Malaga and 70 minutes away from the club's first league title since 2012–and almost equally important preventing Barcelona from maintaining its throne.
But Real wasn't home free yet.
With plenty of time remaining, Malaga, which had nothing at stake besides pride, was awarded a free kick just outside the box and Sandro Ramirez, Malaga’s top scorer and free-kick specialist knew what he had to do. When it comes to dead-ball scenarios, the 21-year-old forward loves to wrap his right foot around the ball, and, much like David Beckham, he bends the shot to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to stop, no matter how prepared a goalkeeper is. He had already done it three times this season and all three ended with the same result–in the back of the net.
But Navas was ready. The Costa Rican goalkeeper analyzed Sandro’s run and as the the ball looked destined for goal, Navas shifted his feet, leapt and swatted it out for a corner, his face hitting the post in the process.
This was a monumental save, not just because it exemplified everything about Navas’s athletic attributes but also because it’s a perfect analogy for how he plays.
Forget the individual attention and glory–let’s get the victory.
Real Madrid went on to win 2-0 and achieve its record 33rd league Spanish title. It was also a historic occasion for the 30-year-old goalkeeper, as he became the first Costa Rican to ever win a La Liga crown.
It was a joyous moment for the kid from humble beginnings, who started playing in the streets of San Andres and moved to Real Madrid from Levante after a stellar showing in the 2014 World Cup.
“It's great to see him as a league champion and in a second Champions League final," Oscar Ramirez, Costa Rica’s head coach, said ahead of a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Panama, where Navas will head following the final. "I have seen his great mentality and we are proud because many of us feel reflected in what he does. As footballers, many do not have the opportunity to reach his level."
There are many great goalkeepers around the world, and few who have had the privilege of wearing the Real Madrid jersey, but when that honor falls to a Costa Rican, it’s an achievement that can be only revered a player's own people.
“Keylor, quite simply, is an idol in our country,” says Fiorella Masis, a sports journalist with La Nación, based in San José, Costa Rica. “If you’re a football fan and you’re Costarricense, you’re a Navas fan. And if you’re not a football fan, you are now, because of Keylor Navas.”
The Navas effect is evident when you walk around the streets of Pérez Zeledón, a province hours from the capital where Navas grew up. Almost every kid wears a Navas shirt, and when they start playing games on the street, everyone wants to be in goal.
“The love for Navas is unrivaled,” Masis said. “Even when you talk about others like Bryan Ruiz–who is really loved here in Costa Rica–it’s not close to how people feel for Keylor.”
Whenever Navas lands in Costa Rica, for example, the airport has to set up a different arrivals gate just for the Real Madrid star as the crowd size gets so big, they cause too much disruption for any other flight.
Navas stops everything.
The loyalty for Navas in Madrid, however, has been tested in the past couple of seasons as a drop in performance jilted his reputation.
It began last summer when an Achilles injury impeded him from taking part in Copa America Centenario, which eventually led to a subpar first half of the season.
But the other nuisance has been the persistent transfer talk of David De Gea. Since the 2015 fax machine drama involving Real Madrid and Manchester United, the Spaniard’s looming arrival has been a major distraction for him, and it seems that no matter what he achieves or he performs, he will never be able to shake off some fans’ doubt whether he should be Real's No. 1 goalkeeper.
De Gea, after all, is Spain’s No. 1, so many Madrid fans believe that just like the legendary Iker Casillas, whom Navas replaced, their goalkeeper should not just represent their club, but also their nation.
“In Costa Rica, many fans, whether it’s on social media or any other medium, say ‘let Real Madrid buy De Gea. And then they’ll see that Navas is still better and De Gea will just sit on the bench,’” Masis said.
His teammates have also never doubted Navas' value.
“(Navas) is a magnificent goalkeeper, we are with him to the end,” said Marcelo during Real Madrid’s pre-Champions League press conference earlier this week. “There’s no need to say how he good he is, you’ve seen him and how hard he works.”
Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid’s captain, sees Navas as a sure thing in goal, and as a defender, there is no better feeling.
“After a difficult season, he has finally reached his highest level,” Ramos said. “Hopefully, he maintains that level, because he is an extraordinary goalkeeper, and in my opinion he is one of the best in the world.”
On Saturday, Navas will face off against Juventus, led by his idol and arguably the greatest player in his position, Gianluigi Buffon. A player and leader, who despite all the achievements for club and country, has never won the Champions League.
In many ways, both Navas and Buffon are similar players–not particularly interested in individual accolades and obsessed with team unity and effort. Their goalkeeping styles are also indistinguishable, where footwork and positioning are the foundation for everything.
But to Costa Rican fans, Buffon takes second fiddle, because to them there is only true idol. And his name is Keylor.