San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
La Sele

What I’ll tell my daughter about La Sele, 2014

Many Costa Ricans and their most fervent fans have been sitting in the eye of a storm for the past few weeks, struck dumb by amazement, watching wide-eyed as accolades all over the world for “the little team that could” have whirled around us in dizzying splendor. But on Saturday, as Costa Rica was eliminated, words returned to me. Here’s why this matters so much, what I want to tell my baby daughter someday about everything she’s seen and not understood these past few weeks:

I don’t know what it’s like not to be big. I’m from the United States, a big country in every way – size, population, loudness, impact on the world for better and for worse. I’m also 5’10”, a giant in Costa Rica, hulking and lurching my way through San José. Years ago, a man behind me in line for an ATM said to no one in particular, “Jueeeeeeputa, qué gringa más grande.”  When we took our group photo at the Office of the President, I was asked to bend down at the knees in the second row so I would fit in the shot. I have, not a bird’s-eye, but a tops-of-other-people’s-heads view of many rooms I enter.

On the other hand, it looks like you, my Tica daughter, might be teeny tiny. You are small for your age, and as you run around at top speed, saying “Hi!” and “¡Gracias!” to everyone, I’m often asked by confused strangers, “How old is that baby?” It’s odd for me, the one who’s always asked to get things off the high shelves, to think of having a petite daughter. You’re small in another way, too: You are from a country of fewer than 5 million people, a country without an army, a country known in part for its love of diminutives. Even though you’re half Gringa, you will always have been born in a tiny nation at the waist of the Americas, and that will always be a part of your worldview. (Thank goodness.)

Grande” is one of the first words a Spanish student learns, but even a simple word like this has layers of meaning. It means big, of course, but also great. It means grown up: What do you want to be cuando seas grande, when you’re big? It can also mean old, as a little white-haired lady once explained to me after she referred to herself as “una señora bien grande” and smiled at my evident confusion.

(Courtesy Katherine Stanley Obando)

Many Costa Ricans, lost for words as La Sele left low expectations in the dust again and again during this World Cup, turned to one word: “Grande.” Grande Keylor Navas, the impossibly valiant goalie. Grande Bryan, Joel, Yeltsin. Grandes todos, they said. Grande La Sele. Grande mi país. This Sele has shown us – Costa Ricans, and all of us – what it means for a little team from a little country to be big, to be great, to be grown up, to be fearless, to be prepared, to prove itself against all odds. It’s been breathtaking. It’s a lesson I want you, tiny one, to take to heart.

La Sele has also shown us how to be small again. Your father is grande, grown up, with all the cynicism that implies. He watches La Sele as any real sports fan watches his team: as if he is singlehandedly paying their salaries out of his own pocket. Even as this World Cup unfolded, he was still quick to criticize or sigh heavily, all a part of his attempt to distract himself from the sheer anxiety of unexpected hope. But as the games went on, I watched him lose his ability to doubt. I watched him turn into a 6-year-old boy before my eyes. He couldn’t help it. He was gobsmacked by joy. Only sports can do this to a person – or at least, only sports can do this to an entire nation at once. Only sports can fill a country with childlike pleasure in this particular way. (After Costa Rica’s elimination Saturday, instead of crying or wallowing, people took to the streets with just as much pride as before to celebrate how far they had come. La Sele will not come home with the Cup, but they’re the only team in the world that gets to come home to a country full of Costa Ricans.)

That’s why I want you to remember your first World Cup. That’s why I’ll cut out clippings and carefully fold up newspaper covers, store the little flag you waved after Saturday’s game as we walked around our neighborhood, save the scorecard on which your dad painstakingly noted the result of every game and proudly wrote “Costa Rica” in its quarterfinal bracket. That’s why we’ll tell you, like old-timers, about Bryan and Keylor and Pinto, who vanquished the Group of Death. They showed small people how to be big. They showed big people how to be small. They reminded everyone who was paying attention that anything can happen, that a football field is a blank canvas, that little can be mighty, that old can be young, that it’s always worthwhile to believe. That life is beautiful.

Katherine Stanley Obando is The Tico Times’ arts and entertainment editor. She also is a freelance writer, translator, former teacher, and academic director of the Costa Rica Multilingüe Foundation and JumpStart Costa Rica. She lives in San José. This piece was originally published in her blog, “The Dictionary of You,” where she writes about Costa Rican language and culture, and raising a child abroad.

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Christina Quiros

Omg I applaud you for this and your brought tears to my eyes again…

After the game we also celebrated here in Commerce, CA where we danced and chanted PURA VIDA CAUSE IN REAL IT WE DID WIN A LOT IN BRAZIL!!!

May your daughter remember these times as she grows up and know what a great country she lives in and how United we were all around the globe wherever their were Ticos/Ticas they were clearly seen and and heard!!!


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Iván Olivas Alcócer

“They showed small people how to be big. They showed big people how to be small. They reminded everyone who was paying attention that anything can happen, that a football field is a blank canvas, that little can be mighty, that old can be young, that it’s always worthwhile to believe. That life is beautiful.”. I really loved that part. Thank you for your words. This article made me feel the emotion again. Pura vida!

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Katherine Stanley

Thanks to all for the comments and interesting points! I guess you would have to know me to understand just how much my daughter will hear (and has already heard) about corruption, poverty, xenophobia, and the other tremendous problems Costa Rica faces, but I believe it’s possible to celebrate the good without losing sight of the bad. As for the idea that Costa Rica is celebrating when it should be looking at ways to improve, one thing I admire about the people of this country is that they know when to stop and simply enjoy the moment. Does that ability sometimes keep people from reaching further and pushing harder? Sure. But La Sele’s World Cup run was much more than a spotty accomplishment or being “good enough.” A look at the stats, at the records or combined player salaries of the teams they defeated, is enough to remind us that what they did was an extraordinary feat that would have been absolutely unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. What’s more, the players acted with dignity and class. This country deserved to be over the moon.

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Kirsten Ramirez

Beautiful. Tears, most definitely. As an American mother and Tico father with two young boys living in the USA this is exactly how we were felling. We would have loved to have been there with our family to share our pride.

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Ken Morris

This is a beautifully written piece that expresses a sentiment we all share (at least I do), but reading it 17 hours after it was posted (and after hearing similar sentiments expressed multiple times elsewhere) I am wondering if it might be part of the problem.

Yes, we are all happy and proud that La Sele made it as far as it did, but the fact is that it lost. I don’t think it had to–that game against the Dutch could have gone either way, and Argentina isn’t unbeatable–but lose it did. What kind of a country celebrates “close” or “good enough” after a loss?

I’m afraid Costa Rica, where spotty accomplishments masked by a smile and a lot of pura vida substitute for excellence.

I too am tickled that Costa Rica went as far as it is, and would definitelty say “good job,” but I worry about low expectations. A country with high expectations would be proud too, but it would already be talking about the next World Cup and victory. I have not heard a single person mention the challenges that lay ahead to improve, only heard how wonderful it was to be “good enough.”

Also, I wonder why you failed to mention Oscar. One of the real achievements of this “good enough” performance by La Sele is that a Nica played well alongside the Ticos, under a Colombian coach. The biggest victory was to combat local xenophobia, and for that especially this World Cup run was a blessing. If I were you, I wouldn’t emphasize to my daughter how a country of fewer than 5 million went as far as it did, but how it did it in concert with others who are part of the international mosaic of Costa Rica–and there’s not a damn thing wrong with being a tall gringa either,

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Sandra Fernandez

Once again, I’ve been moved to tears by an article that talks about La Sele and the pride we feel today! Your daughter will surely thank you when she is older and she gets to experience this unbelievable feat through your mementoes and stories! Great piece!

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I can’t hold back the flood of tears after reading this article.
I’m a Tica living in Holland. I may have been wearing orange , but my heart and prayers were cheering for La Sele.

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Adriana Kröller

Thank you for writing this article, I’m a tica living in Germany with my 8 mo, i leave in November for three months to CR with daughter, my family has never met her. This WC was especially emotional to watch so far from home, all it kept thinking was my little baby doesn’t know what she’s a part of watching her mommy so happy, tears of joy and happiness for her small country. I’m so proud.

I found this article especially beautiful, thank you, Pura vida!

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Carolyn Gonzalez

Beautiful. I teared up.

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Isaac Campos

Great article, it put tears in my eyes.

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Why not tell her that sports are a great distraction from more pressing issues, like corruption in government officials, crumbling infrastructure and rising unemployment

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