The Super Bowl is over. For U.S. sports fans, now there’s only the long drought until September, during which they’ll have to survive on basketball and baseball. But if you live in Costa Rica, there’s hope. The Costa Rican American Football Federation season started on Feb. 4 and runs through April 14.
How can a sport so foreign and complex even be on the map in soccer-crazed Costa Rica? Television and cultural globalization are the main driving forces. With a large expatriate presence, and traditional Costa Rican affinity for the U.S. magnified on the sports scene, it was only a matter of time and money.
The federation is quite a youth movement, with two divisions: 18-and-under flag football, where a player is downed by having a cloth strip dangling from his pants pulled out by a defensive player, and full-contact 18-and-over. At the flag level there are seven teams: Lincoln, Calle Blancos, Belén, Samuel Sáenz, San Nicolás, Fefa A and Fefa B. At the full-contact level there are the Bulldogs, Toros, Raptors, Rhynos and Dragons, from towns like Santa Ana (Bulldogs), southwest of San José, or province capitals like Cartago (Dragons).
Funding comes from industry-related organizations, mostly U.S.-based sportsbooks or traditional sports sponsors like Gatorade. Players are a mixture of Gringo expats and young Ticos who have been captivated by U.S. football, either on visits to the United States, by playing flag football in high school or from watching TV.
The 2012 season is played at Cuty Monge Stadium on the outskirts of Desamparados in southeast San José, where two games are played each Saturday, the first starting at 2 p.m. and the second at 6 p.m.
On Feb. 18, the Bulldogs took on the Toros. The scene was an amazing mixture of Ticos and Gringos. The stadium is located in a sports complex used as a farmers market on Saturdays – fans drive around the produce sales to get to the stadium. The first impression in the parking lot is, “Hey, these guys getting out of cars look way too big for Ticos.”
The field, naturally, is a soccer field, and since it is bigger than a football gridiron, a U.S.-size field is laid down with tape. Orange fiberglass tubes taped to the vertical posts of the goal cages make good goal posts. The field on game day was excellent: short plastic grass covered with powder-fine ground-up rubber pellets for a surface that was both tacky and cushioned.
Many players brought family: little kids that will be the first generation growing up in Costa Rica with U.S. football. Uniforms were full pads and Schutt helmets, the brand that is making headway in the NFL for its maximum protection characteristics. There was a prayer before kickoff for no one to get injured, and the game started.
The NFL is the top U.S. spectator sport for many reasons, starting with its unbeatable combination of tactical sophistication and sheer brutality. But what really distinguishes the sport is its ability to generate suspenseful endings. By the author’s count, between 30 and 40 percent of NFL games are decided by a single score or defensive stop in the last two minutes of play – and this percentage goes up with well-matched teams.
This pattern played out in the Bulldogs-Toros game last Saturday. Toros scored an early touchdown, set up by the day’s longest pass, a 40-yarder. The Bulldogs were checked by poor field position and managed only a field goal in the first half, which ended with a score of Toros 7, Bulldogs 3.
In the second half, the Bulldogs drove for a touchdown on their opening possession, but the Toros answered right back with one of their own. With a critical 25-yard slant pass third-and-long conversion, the Bulldogs ground out a second touchdown to pull ahead again, so there were three lead changes in the second half.
The Toros blocked the last extra point attempt, leaving the score at Bulldogs 16, Toros 14, with four minutes to go and Toros’ ball. They took the kickoff and steadily drove to the Bulldogs 25-yard line. With about 1:30 left, the Bulldogs intercepted on their own 5, and ground out a first down with 30 seconds left, to finally ice the game, 16-14. Typical NFL playoff finish.
So what was missing? A clock scoreboard. In the tense Bulldogs-Toros finish, where remaining seconds were critical, some fans found it a bummer not knowing the time situation.
Coaches had to ask the ref how much time was left after every play, which of course was imprecise when the clock was running. Those in the stands who couldn’t hear were clueless.
Nevertheless, fans found the match a truly enjoyable show, with great action and sportsmanship, and a nail-biting finish.