The Dayton Dynamo were, I now realize, far from a high-quality team. But in Southwest Ohio in early 1990s, there were few better options. European soccer on television would come later that decade, but growing up the only live option was the Dynamo.
The Dynamo did not even play the true 11-a-side game seen around the world. Instead, they played a 5v5 indoor game more akin to hockey – walls and penalty boxes included – that was the only professional soccer in the US after the collapse of the North American Soccer League. The Dynamo played in the National Professional Soccer League, but for all I knew at the time, it was as good as the Champions League.
When MLS came along in 1996, I had learned enough about the world game to be embarrassed by my previous infatuation with the Dayton Dynamo. I had, in fact, become something of a soccer snob and held my nose at Americanizations such as having the clock count down on the scoreboard and hockey-style shootouts to break ties. But the opportunity to watch true professional outdoor soccer was enough for me to hold my nose at its silly “innovations.”
I was at the first Columbus Crew game and can still recall Bo Oshonyi’s long punt to Brian McBride, which the then unknown striker put away with aplomb (the American football-sized field made such a goal easier). My soccer-watching diet was getting better. The modest meal of early MLS was dramatically better than the scraps that were the NPSL, but I knew others were eating five-course meals, and I wanted at least a taste.
For that, I would have to wait until 1997. During the first half of that year, I was an exchange student in Costa Rica. Even before I left, I had circled the date on the calendar when the US would play the Ticos in a qualifier in the capital, San Jose. March 23, 2007, come hell or high water, I would be at Saprissa Stadium.
A few weeks before the game, tickets went on sale. I had heard that demand would be fierce and so I skipped school and headed to the stadium. I arrived to find a long line that included many scalpers. As I fretted in line for several hours, a reporter for Costa Rica’s largest newspaper La Nación approached me and asked if he could interview me. I said sure and we talked about my strong desire to see the game. I was quoted in the paper the next day saying, “I’m from Ohio and the national team never plays there” (this was before the building of Crew Stadium).
And though I have no memory of this now, I apparently also told the reporter that if I couldn’t get tickets at the stadium, I would go to the American embassy to ask if they could help me (little good that would have done me). After nearly half a day of waiting, I gave in and paid a scalper the equivalent of $70 for two tickets to the game, an astronomical mark-up of the face value. I was slightly embarrassed at having paid so much for the tickets, but at least I was going to the game!
When game day finally arrived, I approached the Saprissa Stadium feeling proud of my special status as a ticket holder only to find that scalpers had had trouble selling their wares and tickets were going for far less than what I had paid. Ignorant gringo that I was, I didn’t realize that the game was taking place during Holy Week, a period during which many Costa Ricans head out of town. The lack of demand meant that ticket prices plummeted on game day, by kick-off going for around $1 a piece.
I entered the stadium along with an exchange student friend of mine and we realized that our seats would leave us all alone in a stadium full of Costa Ricans, most of whom seemed friendly (but then, the game hadn’t started yet). Seeing some other American fans across the way, we sweet-talked the stewards into letting us into that section. We may have been a small group (50 at the most), but we were excited, passionate in our support of the US national team.
Pre-game was mostly filled with Costa Rican fans taunting American forward Roy Lassiter with chants of “Lassiter ladrón.” Lassiter had played in Costa Rica for several years, during which time he had apparently not paid his taxes (a la Diego Maradona), a fact that the authorities reminded him of on his return to the country with the national team. Other American players were “greeted” to Costa Rica with bags of urine and batteries hurled at their heads.
The game itself is mostly a blur in my mind. I seem to recall that it was exciting, and indeed it must have been, as it finished 3-2 to the Costa Ricans. Mostly, I remember the atmosphere. It was incredible to witness the noise as the players came onto the field. The roar of the crowd was deafening and the confetti they threw on the field turned it from green to white. Throughout the game, the entire stadium sang in unison: “Vamos, vamos los ticos. Que esta tarde tenemos que ganar” (“Let’s go, let’s go Ticos. Today we must win”). We American fans got chuckles of approval from neighboring fans when we substituted gringos for Ticos and sang along with them.
The general level of English instruction in Costa Rican schools is comically bad, but there is one word that nearly everyone in the country – or at least nearly everyone in the stadium that day – knows: sorry. Showers of “sorry, sorry, sorry” rained down on me and my fellow Americans as we left the stadium, but we had the good humor to laugh along with our taunters. We waved to fans who smiled at us as they practiced their English on us. In many ways, I think it’s for the best that Costa Rica won; I’m not sure how friendly the fans would have been if they had not.
I left the stadium that March day with a lighter wallet than should have been the case, but much richer in terms of soccer experience. I saw first-hand the passion that drives fans in Costa Rica, and throughout the world. It is an infectious passion, and I was sickened that day. I have yet to recover.
David Keyes writes the Culture of Soccer blog, thankfully now back after a long hiatus.