The Goal that United Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Costa Rica and Nicaragua don’t usually find themselves cheering for the same cause. The last time it happened, by my estimate, was in 1856, when the two young Central American nations joined guns to oust an occupying gringo army led by Tennessee filibuster William Walker. Since then — and particularly over the past decade— relations between these two uneasy neighbors have soured to a zero-sum level; each country has accused the other of expansionism and other un-neighborly behavior.

But all that started to change on June 14, when Costa Rica’s Oscar Duarte— the first Nicaraguan-born footballer to play in the World Cup — scored on a beautiful diving header that muscled the underdog Ticos to victory over a stunned Uruguayan squad. In that moment, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who turned on the game to watch Uruguay embarrass their southern neighbor found themselves rooting uncontrollably—and quite unexpectedly—for Costa Rica’s “Sele,” as the team is known.

In that brief and glorious moment of uninhibited excitement, Duarte, a soft-spoken 25-year-old defender, accomplished what no other Nicaraguan or Costa Rican has been able to for a very long time: cause people on both sides of the border to simultaneously spill their beers as they leapt from their chairs in wild celebration.

Duarte’s achievements on and off the pitch can’t be understated, even by this gushingly hyperbolic fan (full disclosure: I lived in Nicaragua for 8 years, and prior to that in Costa Rica where I covered the National Soccer Team — so I’m feeling particularly mushy about this). As a boy, Duarte emigrated to Costa Rica with his family, joining some 450,000 other Nicaraguans who live in the shadows of that country, working hard to eke out a living on the margins of society.

Duarte, however, was blessed with football skills even as a young boy. At age 4, Duarte could be found kicking a soccer ball around on a dirt field in his hometown of Catarina, even when other boys were interested in baseball and boxing — Nicaragua’s two traditional pastimes.

After he moved to Costa Rica, his skills were noticed by San José’s Saprissa Futbol Club, which recruited him to play for their youth team. At 13, Duarte became a naturalized citizen of Costa Rica and was already being groomed for the National Team.

By the time Duarte got the call, soccer had already wildly popular back in Nicaragua, thanks to cable TV broadcasts of Spain’s La Liga. The Sandinista government, in its attempt to drive recruitment for its Sandinista Youth movement, has been known to take students out of school to watch giant-screen broadcasts of Barcelona vs. Real Madrid on giant-screen “virtual stadiums” built just for the event.

Still, despite the sudden spike in fan interest, Nicaraguans have had very little opportunity to cheer for their own national team, which is currently ranked 176th in the world by FIFA. Nicaragua has only qualified for one international tournament in its 85-year history, when it slipped almost unnoticed into the 2009 Gold Cup, and then got spanked. Adding insult to injury, FIFA later slapped Nicaragua’s star player, Armando Collado, with a lifetime ban for fixing a friendly match against Guatemala in 2010.

Duarte, however, has suddenly given Nicaraguans a homegrown hero to cheer for on the world’s biggest stage. His goal last Saturday has had the whole country buzzing all week in eager anticipation of Friday’s match between Costa Rica and Italy.

“No one can criticize Duarte for anything,” says Nicaraguan football fan and journalist Wilfredo Miranda. “The issue is that Nicaragua didn’t offer him opportunities for his talents. So we are going to support him, because it’s the closest we’ll get to the World Cup.”

Immigration advocates also hope that Duarte’s success and cross-border fame becomes a teachable moment for the people of both countries.

“This is an opportunity for both countries to realize how intermixed our populations really are,” says Martha Cranshaw, director of the Nicaraguan Association of Immigrants. “This should be a moment when we look at immigration through new eyes, and recognize that Nicaragua is not just exporting labor, but also its talent — and that talent is helping Costa Rica to grow, develop and succeed as a country.”

Says Cranshaw, “I only hope that Costa Rica continues to win and advances to the second round of the World Cup, so these feelings have a chance to deepen.”