San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Soccer Talk Sweeps Nation

COSTA Rica is no stranger to the obsession thatbrings euphoria or bitter disappointment to millionsof fans, but this week saw many Ticos discussing thefuture of the national soccer team as if their livesdepended on it.Steve Sampson’s dismissal as the coach of thenational team Monday may mark the end of hiscareer in Costa Rica, but it appeared to be just thebeginning of countrywide debate about the failingsof the country’s soccer system, a mess thatSampson’s replacement, Colombian Jorge LuisPinto, will have to clean up.Sampson was fired the day after a 1-1 tie withlower-ranked Cuba, which allowed Costa Rica tocontinue in the World Cup 2006 qualifying roundsbut infuriated many fans in a country where soccer isnothing short of a religion.The qualification came on what many consideredan embarrassing technicality: the Costa Rican team(La Selección Nacional, or La Sele) scored moregoals as a visiting team during the first game of theround, a 2-2 tie in Cuba on June 12.The Costa Rican Soccer Federation (FEDEFUT)met Monday afternoon and decided to fire the U.S.-born coach.SAMPSON, who also coached the U.S. nationalteam, expressed regret but not remorse.“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to finish thejob, but I did what they contracted mefor,” he said during an interview with TheTico Times on Wednesday.IN Sunday’s game against the Cubannational team at Alejandro Morera SotoStadium in Alajuela, north of San José,the Ticos scored off a header by RonaldGómez in the first half of the game. In the45th minute, however, the Cubansrebounded with a goal by AlainCervantes.The rest of the game was a stalematedescribed by the national media asmediocre at best, “shameful” and “unacceptable”at worst.Though fans jeered La Sele’s performance,Costa Rica will move on in thenext round of World Cup qualifyingrounds, and is scheduled to play Hondurashere on Aug. 18.A trip to the 2006 World Cup inGermany would be Costa Rica’s third. Inthis soccer-mad country, a World Cupappearance is the fan’s Holy Grail.After Costa Rica’s qualifying victoryagainst the U.S. team three years ago,Ticos celebrated all night and into themorning (TT, Sept. 7, 2001). Governmentworkers were given time off work tocheer on a parade organized by then-presidentMiguel Angel Rodríguez.REACTIONS to FEDEFUT’s decisionwere mixed; most fans agreedSampson is a good man and a good coach,but many said something was missingfrom his tenure.“He’s a very good coach, but the playersand fans don’t respect him,” said LuisDiego, 26, a court researcher from SanJosé, who did not provide his last name.Luis Garcia Cheves, 48, shed somelight on why that could be the case.“He isn’t a Tico player. He doesn’tplay offensively enough; he defends toomuch,” said the security guard fromDesamparados, in southern San José.Sampson agrees his nationality complicatedhis tenure.“I think being foreign is a problem,”he said. “But being a North American,from the United States, is doubly challengingbecause they (the fans) don’t seethe United States as a country that is passionateabout the game of soccer…eventhough the United States has far outperformedCosta Rica in soccer at the worldlevel. They just can’t accept it.“WITH the players, that (being a foreigner)was not an issue; that was an issuewith fans and the press,’’ he added.Some fans disagreed, saying the problemwas indeed with the players.“He is a very good coach; it’s not hisfault. If the best coaches in the worldcame, the same thing would happen,” saysCarlos Alberto Hernández, 60, a taxi driverfrom Alajuelita, south of San José.“All the time we’re looking at thesame players. We need to get a new teamwith new men. They’re old. We needyoung men from other (Costa Rican)clubs,” he added.Others blamed FEDEFUT.Fernando Lens Molina, 43, a courtresearcher from Desamparados, said, “Hewas a good coach and he didn’t haveenough time to prepare. FEDEFUT shouldgive coaches more time and support.”THE former coach said he harbors noill will toward FEDEFUT directors.“They felt an enormous amount ofpressure from the press,” he said. “Itbecame a political issue for them. It wasnot a soccer decision.”Coaching La Sele is a no-win situationfor any coach, according to Sampson. Themain problem, he said, is “a lack of timewith the national team.”“Between November and May 27,when I took the team to prepare for Cuba,I literally had four days of practice. Iwould have died for one day a week withthe national team,” he said.“Those are not ideal preparation conditions,and when I requested time with theteam, with the players, the clubs determinedthat they couldn’t release them.That’s an issue that the federation has totake up, and until that changes these kindsof things will continue to happen.”FEDEFUT representative PatriciaDurán confirmed the tension between theclub teams’ demand on players and theiravailability for national team practice.“We experienced a lot of inconvenienceso the first-division teams couldlend players to the national team,” she said.Sampson alleged the clubs’ “interestscome first, and the national team comeslast.” As a result, the players “came intothis World Cup qualifying phase exhaustedfrom the league season.”The crux of the issue appears to be theconflicting interests of fans, players, thepress, and FEDEFUT, all parties Sampsonfelt pressured to please, though expectationsalmost guaranteed this would beimpossible.“If even two out of those four elementsare dead against you, and theydon’t have confidence that you’re goingto get a job done, then it’s very difficult tooperate,” he said.SAMPSON also mentioned soccer’slack of governmental financial support asa key failing. Costa Rica has “noresources, no infrastructure,” he said.For Sampson, the contrast between thecountry’s soccer fanaticism and the lackof practical support is disturbing.“Out of 21 games that I coached, weonly played five here in CostaRica…that’s a tremendous advantage,playing at home.”But according to Sampson, homegames aren’t financially feasible becauseticket sales don’t cover the cost of hostinggames.“It’s just a matter of, what are the prioritieshere in this country? The prioritiesalways become a state of emergency rightbefore the (World Cup) qualifying starts.And that’s the worst way to prepare.”Sampson recently negotiated seven toten days of required training prior to eachqualifying match, beginning in August.“PINTO will have the benefit of that,and given that amount of time before eachgame, I think Costa Rica will qualify (forthe World Cup),” Sampson said.Pinto, La Sele’s new coach, was chosenover Alexandre Guimaraes, CostaRica’s popular former coach who led LaSele to the World Cup in 2002.Pinto “is an individual who is verystrong-handed with the players, andeverything that I’ve heard here in CostaRica is that that’s the way you have to beto get results. But I think it’s going to bea very very difficult road for him…I wishhim well,” Sampson said.Pinto will be up against the same pressuresas Sampson; according toFEDEFUT’s Durán, however, he willhave a grace period, even if La Sele losesits next game.“I think people would accept thatbecause it would be his first game,”Durán said.“He knows most of the players butworking with them is going to be very different.He will have to sit down and talkwith them, to figure out what’s best forCosta Rica and that’s a process,” she said.SAMPSON was hired as head coachof La Sele in October 2002. During histenure, La Sele racked up a 58.33% winrate, with 12 wins and 3 ties out of 23games. The team scored 35 goals andgave up 26.At the time of his hiring, Sampsontold The Tico Times that Costa Rica hadan impressive amount of talent (TT, Oct.18, 2002).In later interviews, Sampson appearedto show the stress that comes with such animpassioned fan base.“I have to look at things purely objectivelyand I think that they look at thingspurely subjectively,” Sampson told TheTico Times last August (TT, Aug. 22,2003).He added optimistically, “I think theyare adapting well for my likes. This is aprocess that doesn’t happen in one or twomonths, it happens in a year, a year and ahalf, two years.”But a year and a half was all he got.Whether FEDEFUT’s decision representsa lack of flexibility or simple prudenceis open for debate; either way,Sampson is packing up for the final leg ofa journey he began back in 2002.

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