Costa Rican soccer has a new hero.
Across the Atlantic, Bryan Ruíz, the 24-year-old, lanky, stringy-haired Costa Rican forward, led FC Twente to a 2-0 win over NAC Breda on Sunday to clinch their first-ever championship in the top Dutch league, the Eredivisie. During the season, his first since joining the team in July, Ruíz scored 24 goals in 34 appearances, finishing as the league’s second leading scorer.
On Monday, over 70,000 fans flooded the streets of Twente, near the Netherland’s eastern border with Germany, to celebrate the club’s only league title since its creation in 1965. At the center of the celebration was Ruíz, the 6’2” forward with a wide smile and gleaming braces.
“This was an unforgettable season, not only for the team, but for me, personally, as well,” Ruíz said after the game. “When I arrived in Holland, I had hopes that I would be able to accomplish many things, though I knew it would not be easy. My teammates and coach welcomed me and put a lot of confidence in me from the beginning of the season. Now we are celebrating together as champions of the league.”
The royal treatment continued upon Ruíz’ return to Costa Rica Tuesday night. When his plane touched down at JuanSantamaríaAirport, he was swarmed by media and fans, many of whom took to chanting “Bryan! Bryan!” as he crossed the terminal.
“When I play in Holland, I know that I am representing Costa Rica,” Ruíz said. “It was the support of my family, friends and Costa Rican fans that made this year possible for me.”
Ruíz’ international triumph is a rare feat for a Costa Rican player. In the history of Costa Rican soccer, only a handful of Ticos have played in Europe, with only two, Paulo Wanchope and Alejandro Morera Soto, ever receiving similar international acclaim. After Ruíz’ recent European feat, an intriguing question has begun to drift through the air: Is Bryan Ruíz the best player in the country’s history?
“I would say he is the best,” said José Luis Monge, a longtime coach and current president of the Costa Rican Football Association for the Homeless (TT News, Oct. 23, 2009). “The adaptation to the European game is extremely challenging, and not many Tico players can do it. I think what he accomplished in his first year is more than other Costa Ricans accomplished in their entire career.”
But not all are ready to anoint Ruíz the king of Costa Rican football.
“It’s too soon to consider him the best in the history of the country,” said Francisco de Paula Gutiérrez, president of the Central Bank (BCCR) and long-time soccer fan, who awoke at 6:30 to watch Ruíz play Sunday morning. “I think he is a tremendous player and very mature for how young he is, though it’s too soon to say whether or not he’s as good as Wanchope or Morera Soto.”
Of the 12 people surveyed by The Tico Times this week, all mentioned Wanchope or Morera Soto when asked, “Who is the best player in Costa Rican history?”
Wanchope, a Tico legend, played for three teams during his seven years in the English Premier League, one of the world’s top leagues. Wanchope also played in two World Cups and has a resume decorated with such feats as a goal against Manchester United, one of the top world teams, and scoring two goals in a World Cup match against Germany in 2006.
To date, Morera Soto’s achievements are the most impressive of any Costa Rican player. After playing several years for the local team LD Alajuelense, known as “La Liga,” Morera Soto went on to play for FC Barcelona in Spain in 1933. In three seasons with FC Barcelona, one of the world’s premier soccer teams, Morera Soto scored 63 goals in 76 games. At the time, he was one of the highest-paid players in the world, and was dubbed the “Costa Rican phenomenon” by members of the Spanish press.
But it appears Ruíz is going to make a strong play for that distinction. On Tuesday, Ruíz confirmed that top-flight Spanish teams Valencia and Sevilla, as well as the storied English teams of Everton and Tottenham, have expressed interest in acquiring him for next season. Though Ruíz said he would wait until June to make up his mind about where he’ll play next season, he’s clearly caught the eye of the highest levels of the international soccer world.
And he’s only 24.
“Considering him the best player in the country is a very subjective opinion,” said a representative from the International Soccer Federation (FIFA), the sport’s governing body, who requested anonymity. “If you asked 100 fans, you’d probably get dozens of different names. However, lately his name has been linked with a number of bigger international clubs. That certainly means he is doing very well.”