San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

After teammate’s death, La Sele striker Saborío demonized by fans

An athlete’s career is often defined by extremes. In a career that spans years, athletes are remembered for isolated moments of triumph or failure, wins and losses, makes or misses.

For 29-year-old Costa Rican striker Álvaro Saborío, a longtime regular on the national team La Sele, the biggest legacy of his career may be the haunting events of the past two weeks.

Saborío’s streak of misfortune began June 18. In the quarterfinal match of the Gold Cup tournament, held at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Costa Rica faced off against Central American rival Honduras. After Costa Rica clawed its way out of a 1-0 hole to tie the score in the second half, Tico striker Marco Ureña was pulled down in the Honduras box and awarded a penalty kick in the 75th minute.

Saborío stepped up to take the kick.

According to FIFA, the international soccer governing body, about 75 percent of all penalty kicks are converted at the professional level.

But when Saborío struck the ball sitting 12 yards from the goal, Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares guessed correctly, diving to his right to swat away the low, right-footed shot. A dejected Saborío ran his hands over his shaved head in disbelief while Costa Rican coach Ricardo La Volpe scowled, folded his arms and shook his head.

After a scoreless final 15 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of overtime, the game went to a penalty kick shootout. With Honduras leading the shootout 2-1, Saborío again stepped up to the penalty kick spot.

He missed again.

Using a different strategy from his first attempt, Saborío elected to blast the ball at the center of the goal. While Valladares dove right, Saborío’s shot went high, caroming off the crossbar and sailing out of play. Saborío stood motionless as he watched the ball drift beyond the goal. The camera panned to the Costa Rican bench and La Volpe, who sat with a blank stare, arms crossed, and then back to Saborío, who trudged back to the center of the field looking anguished.

In a press conference after the game, La Volpe further rubbed salt in his forward’s wounds, stating that he didn’t select Saborío to take the penalty kick in regulation time.

“It wasn’t the coach’s decision to choose which player took the shot,” La Volpe said. “It was the decision of the players on the field at the time. They are more aware of who is in better shape at that stage of the game to take the shot. Ultimately it was [Saborío] who made the decision to take it.”

In the wake of the defeat, national fans and media bombarded the striker. A story in the daily La Nación referred to the game as “the most infamous day of his career.” Within 24 hours of the game, a Facebook page was created with the title “I want Álvaro Saborío to retire from La Selección.” As of Wednesday, 8,322 people had “liked” the page, while an additional 3,000 had “liked” a similar page titled “Álvaro Saborío OFF La Selección Nacional.” A page titled “I support Álvaro Saborío” was also created, though only 225 fans have “liked” the page to date.

From Bad to Tragic

In the loss against Honduras, Costa Rica’s lone star of the match was central defender Dennis Marshall. The thin, lanky, left-footed defender from Limón tallied the Ticos’ only goal of the game with a header in the 55th minute, slid in to block a Honduran shot destined for goal at the end of regulation time, and created Costa Rica’s best opportunity to score in the first overtime period.

Five days later, on June 23, Marshall was killed in a car accident on Route 32, the highway that connects the capital to Limón on the Caribbean coast. Marshall and his wife, who also died in the crash, were returning to San José after a visit to his parents’ home. Marshall was 25.

As the nation mourned the loss of Marshall, a promising star for La Sele, criticisms of Saborío resurfaced on social networking sites and website comment boards of national media outlets. One comment read: “If Saborío had scored the penalty kick, La Sele would have won, and yesterday they would have been playing against Mexico, not dying.”

“It’s a shame to see and hear some of the comments of fans and people who tried to relate the missed penalty kick and Marshall’s death. You can’t associate one with the other,” Gerardo Coto, a historian for UNAFUT, the national soccer league governing body, told The Tico Times this week. “It is evident that people were frustrated with the loss and had to put the blame on someone. Blaming Marshall’s death on Saborío was a way for fans to vent their frustration.”

On June 25, two days after Marshall’s death, Saborío, who declined to be interviewed for this article, returned to league action with his U.S.-based club team Real Salt Lake. After being held scoreless through the first 15 games of the regular season, Saborío notched two goals in an 18-minute stretch to lead Real Salt Lake to a 3-1 victory. Saborío, who said after the game that he dedicated his performance to Marshall, kissed a black bland on his arm after each goal and looked stoically to the sky.

“It seemed like he didn’t want to smile about [the goals], and I think he should,”  Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told media after the match. “I think he should have a big, wide smile on his face and recognize that this is the beginning, I think, of Álvaro Saborío’s season.”

Fickle Tico Fans

Saborío’s reputation with Costa Rican fans has always run hot and cold.

He missed a chance against Uruguay in late 2009 that could have put La Sele in the 2010 World Cup. A year and a half later, he scored the first goal during the inaugural game of the National Stadium against China in March.

In 2003-2004, he was the leading scorer for national club team Saprissa, while this year, playing for his new team, Real Salt Lake, he played a vital role in eliminating Saprissa from the Concacaf Champions League competition.

“He has always been a player of highs and lows,” UNAFUT’s Coto said. “He is great in some games and seems to disappear in others. … He is fast and strong and very good in the air. He brings something to the team that no other players can, and for that reason he remains a very important part of the team.”

As for Saborío’s currently tarnished reputation, Coto said he feels it could quickly be reversed with a goal, an assist or a solid performance in La Sele’s next match.

“Here in Costa Rica, negative comments about soccer players last for only a few days and then there is something else to talk or complain about,” Coto said. “If Saborío scores in one of his next matches for La Sele, the fans will completely forget about the [missed] penalty kicks.”

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