Luis Fernando Suárez from Costa Rica: ‘We tried to be more European, but lost our essence’ |  World Cup 2022

Luis Fernando Suárez from Costa Rica: ‘We tried to be more European, but lost our essence’ | World Cup 2022

Tthe frightened face that Luis Fernando Suárez feigns quickly slips into a smile. “I was scared,” says the Costa Rica coach with a laugh. It was 1989, 10 days after he was left out of the Atlético Nacional squad that became the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores and called the manager. Francisco Maturana told Suárez that he was leaving to focus on the national team and that’s what he wanted it to take his place along with his assistant Hernán Gómez. “That morning I trained with my teammates; that afternoon they introduced me as a coach,” he recalls. “Maturana believed in me before I did.”

Yeah, sort of. “One day I asked him what he had seen in me,” says Suárez. “And he said, ‘The point is that you were such a bad player and such a good person that it was the only way to retire you.'” He laughs, but Maturana, Colombia’s World Cup coach of 1990 and 1994, and that of Ecuador in 1998, when he became Suárez’s assistant, was right. On Wednesday afternoon, the 62-year-old will lead Costa Rica, the third country with which he has qualified for a World Cup, after Ecuador in 2006 and Honduras in 2014, against Spain. It has become an “obsession,” he says.

“Obsession is a positive thing. When I reached my first World Cup, I went around like a journalist with a tape recorder, but only asked one question: ‘prof, help me with your experience. If you were to go to a World Cup again, what would you do?’ I saw Menotti, Bilardo, Basile, Queiroz. They opened up, but when I got there I experienced something I had never experienced before – I was pretty bad, so it was quite difficult for me to go to a World Cup – and I couldn’t believe it. In Germany I saw all these great things and…”

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Suarez shakes his head. “I said to myself: ‘This is not going to be my only World Cup. It’s not possible. I want more.’ Luckily I had Honduras and now Costa Rica and the obsession is growing. This time people said, “You’re not going to do it,” the situation wasn’t good, but there was a moment where I thought, “Yeah, we can do this,” where I returned to that obsession.

Costa Rica won only one of their first seven qualifiers. “I was sick with Covid, at home, alone,” Suárez recalled. “It’s a moment where you throw everything away or drag yourself through it. I chose dragging. I got that obsessive feeling again and wanted to convey that to the players. There is a group that wants the same thing, a synergy. I remember Keylor Navas saying, “I’m here to fight.” And this very interesting emotional state was created.

They won six and drew one of their last seven games to reach the play-off against New Zealand. Suárez’s refrigerator features the arts and crafts his grandson created; in the center are also four magnets: Spain, Germany, Japan and Costa Rica, placed there on the day of the World Cup draw in April. “It was never ‘New Zealand’ or ‘Costa Rica’, just Costa Rica,’ he says; every time he went to the refrigerator for two months, he saw it. In June, Joel Campbell’s goal took them to Qatar. The magnets stayed.

“It was a difficult year; to get to a place I didn’t know,” says Suárez, but it’s still a familiar process. After all, this is the third country he has been to a World Cup with, none of which was his own. “The timing was not right with Colombia,” he says. “There was a point when they offered, but I was very raw, didn’t have the experience. I was only an assistant. It was 1999, I called my father. ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘There are guns aimed at it [coach] Javier Álvarez and I only see them turning on you.’”

Suárez continues: “When Ecuador arrived a few years later, I felt ready. I had been an assistant there, I had been with Aucas, I knew how the Ecuadorian thinks – not the player, the person. That’s important: they understand, the quirks, have the plasticity to adapt. Honduras signed me in advance: I had a year, two, to get to know them. With Costa Rica it was a crash course. You have to get to know them.”

Luis Fernando Suárez with Costa Rica player Joel Campbell during a training session
Luis Fernando Suárez with Joel Campbell, whose input as a senior player Suárez likes to highlight. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP

“I spoke to the coach of the Costa Rican golf team. He said the Costa Rican golfer is different from the American golfer: he tries to get the ball closer to the hole, the American hits until the hole. That’s the Costa Rican: careful, careful. I like how they are. Without being a rich country, it is an egalitarian country, without such a difference between classes. Pura vida. They told me, ‘When we became independent from the Spaniards, we didn’t fight. The Viceroy sent a letter saying we were free.’ Imagine. There is not even a fight for freedom.”

Suarez laughs. “And the best part was that they took the time to answer or accept. You have to understand and use that character. You are not there to indoctrinate. Some coaches say, “What I say is everything.” I am absolutely against that. I want the team to be a mental state reached when everyone feels heard, personally important, owner of their destiny, personified in the team.

He discusses sessions that provide structure but promote freedom, autonomous decision-making, problems that are there to be overcome. There is an enthusiasm for leftist ideas, mental games. Introduced in Three Sided Football, he gets to try. He describes exhibition games in which players do not know who is on their team or are played in silence. There’s a glint in his eye, an idea that underlies everything: players thinking, taking agency.

“If players just do what we say, they’ll end up like robots,” he says. “We need to humanize this. We coaches are guilty of thinking about the move and not the player: how he is, how he feels. We create a situation where he runs football, not him Play american football. Latin Americans have tried to be more European, but we have lost our essence: joy, creativity. We put on a suit that doesn’t fit; the Latin American is poorly dressed.”

Suárez continues: “The most important thing is to listen, to seek complicity. I spoke to Keylor and saw a burning desire to qualify. I said, “Me too.” Two people obsessed with reaching the World Cup. Others are also intelligent to lead the group, such as Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, Bryan Oviedo. It’s definitely an advantage to have that generation. Look at Joel Campbell. At Arsenal I always saw someone who could stand out; now, even though he’s only 30, I see a grown man who knows where he’s going. And most importantly, those players are teaching. They’ve taken 19, 20 year old kids and practically adopted them.

Keylor Navas and his Costa Rica teammates celebrate beating New Zealand to qualify for the 2022 World Cup
Keylor Navas (right) and his Costa Rica teammates celebrate beating New Zealand to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Photo: Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters

“Navas is a warrior, a role model not only for Costa Rica but also for Central America. He has won three Champions Leagues, but does not want to be the star: if the opponents throw stones at the ranch and he saves everyone, he is not happy. When he takes a signed PSG shirt and raffles it among the youngest players, he is doing something no coach can do. I can’t accomplish what he does with a hug or a gesture. Just having him there is so valuable.

Navas has also been here before. As the fridge magnets testify, Costa Rica could hardly have a tougher group. “Awesome!says Suárez, rolling his eyes mockingly. But in 2014, Costa Rica left their group for England and Italy. “There are five or six who know how to handle this. Just because it happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again, but their experience brings peace to others. They ask, ‘How can we do this? Is this possible?’ Yes, it is possible.

“We are aware that others are favourites, but we want to compete. There was catharsis in qualifying, going from six points in seven games to 19 in 21. Against New Zealand, people thought we just had to show up to go through, but we were serious. At the moment I see a group that has the same concentration, focus, commitment.”

They also have Suárez’s red Converse boots, which they’ve worn every game and were so lucky he couldn’t take them off when he wanted to. “The players force me to wear them – I could be naked as long as I wore them,” he says. “There is no sponsorship deal. I started wearing them because I had a foot problem, had to use a splint and needed something to hold it in place. I will be happy to wear them at the next World Cup.”

The shoes have become so famous that Suárez donated an identical pair to the country’s president, Rodrigo Chaves, for the tournament. Now do well in Qatar and they will end up in a museum. The Costa Rica coach laughs. “Yes,” he says, “and if we do badly, I’ll have to use them to run.”

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