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Keylor Navas on his unlikely adventures with Costa Rica: ‘World Cup changed my life’

The Athletic

“Ever since I was very small, I had all my objectives very clear,” Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas tells The Athletic. “At eight years of age, I was already dreaming of playing for the national team. During the public events at my school, when they sang the national anthem, I always imagined I was standing in the packed Estadio Ricardo Saprissa about to play for Costa Rica.”

Over the almost three decades since, current Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Navas has surpassed what even the most imaginative and ambitious eight-year-old kid in the rural highlands town of San Isidro de El General might have thought possible.

The Athletic is speaking to the three-time Champions League winner as he prepares to travel to Qatar for his third World Cup finals as the most successful footballer in Costa Rica’s history.

“They are moments which were incredible — even when you look back at them now, it is impossible not to get emotional and feel happy,” Navas says, reflecting on the ups and downs of his 107-cap (and counting) international career. “They were unique moments for Costa Rican football.”

All this seemed unlikely as Navas grew up in humble circumstances in San Isidro as the son of a religion teacher and semi-pro footballer — two strands that have guided his life from the beginning.

Aged five, he decided he would become a goalkeeper, even though he was then small for his age and coaches at his local clubs were not convinced. Inspiration came from then-national team keeper Lester Morgan (who was to tragically take his own life soon after the 2002 World Cup). Morgan was also not the biggest but had tremendous athleticism and reflexes.

Navas’ dedication, conviction and shot-stopping talent eventually convinced the local Pedregoso football academy to take him on. After impressing in a tournament against Deportivo Saprissa, the country’s biggest club asked him to join them and move to the capital San Jose.

An unused sub as Saprissa won the 2004-05 CONCACAF Champions League, Navas soon established himself as first choice, and the dream full Costa Rica debut came in October 2008 against Suriname. The following summer he was named player of the tournament as Los Ticos reached the semi-finals of the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup. This was a reward for all the family. Keylor had lived with his grandparents in San Isidro, then alone at a residency in Saprissa, while his parents had moved to the U.S. to work, returning to visit and attend games when possible.

“My mother and father, when they could, always went to the games,” Navas says. “I had their support, always. It was really nice (for my family) as the national team games in Costa Rica are huge for the whole country. For them to be watching the game, with a member of their family out there, makes them very proud.”

Summer 2010 saw Navas — by now aged 22 — move to Spain to join Segunda Division side Albacete. Although the team were relegated to the third tier, he impressed enough to earn a move up to the Primera Division at Levante. He then spent most of his first two seasons on the bench as back-up to former Uruguay international Gustavo Munua.

Progress was more obvious at Costa Rica — where Navas was among an emerging generation of players including Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz who could aim to make the 2014 World Cup.

After Munua left Levante in the summer of 2013, Navas inherited the starting spot and had an absolutely outstanding 2013-14 La Liga campaign, winning the award for the Primera Division’s best goalkeeper. He also starred as Costa Rica beat the United States and Mexico to secure a spot at a first World Cup since 2006.

“The national team has always helped me, even though I was not always playing (at my club),” he says. “I have always been able to perform at a high level for them. Nobody has ever gifted me anything. I have had to show, in every game with the national team, that I deserved to be the starter.”

Excitement in Costa Rica about making the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil was tempered when the draw put them in a group with three past tournament winners. But Navas and his colleagues shocked Uruguay 3-1 in the opening game, then beat Italy 1-0, before a 0-0 draw with already-eliminated England confirmed them as group winners.

“I have many memories from the games — saves, moves, teammates, the joy of being able to win those games,” Navas recalls. “That World Cup we had a very difficult group, but we did not stop believing in ourselves. I always think that games are there to be played, you give 100 per cent, with the mentality always that you are going to win.”

The drama was far from over — their last-16 game with Greece went to penalties. Navas was then the hero with a save from Greece striker Theofanis Gekas as Los Ticos progressed 5-4 in the shoot-out to reach a first-ever World Cup quarter-final.

Despite suffering from a shoulder injury, Navas was again heroic against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, making eight saves as his team held on for penalties. Although the Dutch progressed in the shootout, Navas was named by FIFA as goalkeeper of the tournament after saving a phenomenal 21 of 23 shots on target over his five games.

🇨🇷 🙅‍♂️ Keylor Navas haciendo cosas de Keylor [email protected] | @fedefutbolcrc pic.twitter.com/WY5wR4A7oc

— Copa Mundial FIFA 🏆 (@fifaworldcup_es) June 9, 2022

“That World Cup changed my life,” Navas says. “On a football level, after the World Cup, I could sign for Real Madrid. It was the World Cup in which Costa Rica went farthest in the tournament. It was incredible. We had a very good team, and we all remember it with so much joy.”

Following that €10million (£8.7m) move to Madrid, Navas again found himself on the bench at club level, behind captain Iker Casillas. But when Casillas left the Bernabeu in summer of 2015, he went on to win three Champions League trophies in his first three seasons as Madrid’s first choice.

“The feeling of success does not change, it is always the same, (whether with country or club),” Navas says. “What does change is the atmosphere, what things mean. To have success with my country has been the best thing that happened to me, but winning three consecutive Champions Leagues with Madrid I also enjoyed a lot, those lovely memories, and making history.”

Navas helped Costa Rica qualify again for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where this time they gained just one point from group games against Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland. He had some personal highlights — against Brazil, he made seven saves, including a fantastic close-range reflex stop to deny Neymar, only for Philippe Coutinho finally beat him in the 91st minute. Overall, the feeling was disappointment and frustration.

“The World Cup in Russia did not go as we wanted, for many reasons, sporting and non-sporting,” Navas says. “But that is football. You do not always have the opportunity to have a national team where all the players are at their best level. Russia was not like Brazil.”

keylor navas

That allusion to non-sporting reasons is the closest Navas comes to referring to regular political issues around the Costa Rica team over the years. The most dramatic being when former federation president Eduardo Li accused Navas, Borges and Ruiz of threatening to throw games to get Jorge Luis Pinto sacked as national coach. The three players sued for libel and a Costa Rican court declared the statements unfounded. Li was later suspended for life by FIFA, after pleading guilty to bribery charges in a New York court.

The relationship is better with current federation president Rodolfo Villalobos, who defended Navas from criticism from some quarters — for instance, when he did not represent Costa Rica at the 2017, 2019 or 2021 Gold Cups. It is a challenge to balance his need to be at his best to keep goal for top clubs such as Madrid and PSG, while his national team needs their only elite player for every game possible, he admits.

“It is difficult when you come from a small country,” Navas says. “Normally, the great players, on a historic level, come from the bigger countries. So often the fans do not believe in you, but I have shown it on the field many times, earning that opportunity is difficult, but if you manage it, you win respect.”

There have also been doubters at club level along the way, perhaps due to his unorthodox style — Navas is small for a keeper but has spectacular athleticism and reflexes. Madrid president Florentino Perez tried to replace him with David de Gea, then finally did so with Thibaut Courtois. PSG’s Qatari owners brought in Gianluigi Donnarumma as their preferred long-term No 1.

A sensitive and obdurate character, and very devout Catholic, Navas’ reaction has generally been to maintain his own personal standards whatever the circumstances for club or country.

“Whether or not people see Keylor as a world star, I have not changed the mentality I started out with,” he says. “I always want to get the best out of myself, train well, make the biggest effort, always want to win. Those things do not change — not in my mentality or my way of working.”

Costa Rica making the 2022 World Cup seemed impossible after they won just one of their seven qualifiers under new coach Luis Fernando Suarez, a Colombian who previously coached Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup and Honduras in 2014.

This tough start was not helped by their keeper and captain coming off injured at half-time in their October 2021 game away to the US, then missing the 1-0 defeat to surprise package Canada with an elbow injury.

Navas returned for the next game at home to Honduras and says that a conversation among the team pointing out exactly what was going to be required to make it to Qatar was vital.

“The first games we did not play well,” he says. “I felt that responsibility to help the group make the World Cup. We had a chat among all the team (saying) the World Cup is where the best are, and we want to be there. As a group we became united, we worked a lot mentally, physically, and we achieved something that for many people was impossible.”

That ‘impossible’ run was six games featuring five victories, including a 1-0 win at home to table-toppers Canada, and a goalless draw away at Mexico. Navas conceded just two goals in 540 minutes of competitive action when any mistake could have meant their World Cup dream was over.

“We played many finals in a row,” he says. “We could not afford to lose even one, or make even one mistake. And we managed to do it.”

The last of those finals was the last qualifying game at home to the U.S. at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica. Results elsewhere meant Los Ticos had already secured a play-off place, but it was still a huge boost to beat a U.S. team that Navas says are building towards a successful future.

“I left the pitch a bit injured that day, but happy as the team was winning,” he says. “It is not easy to beat the U.S., but we did it. They progressed a lot, they have players now at a pretty good level, playing at big clubs. Their fans can relax this year and in the future, they have a very good national team.”

June’s play-off in Qatar took on a familiar shape for Costa Rica fans. Ex-Arsenal forward Joel Campbell scored after just three minutes before Keylor made a string of saves, including a late reflex stop to somehow deny Newcastle United’s Chris Wood.

“We made ourselves strong as a group, with the coach, all together, the fans, the media, the technical staff and the players,” Navas says. “That does not guarantee success, but it does mean you are closer to achieving something. We should be very happy that we are able to play in another World Cup.”

The 2022 World Cup draw has again not made it easy for Costa Rica — in Group E, they face 2010 winners Spain, 2014 champions Germany, and a potentially dangerous Japan side. Tactics are likely to be familiar, with Suarez’s side looking to sit deep, break perhaps using the pace of 18-year-old Sunderland winger Jewison Bennette, and trust their keeper’s heroics.

go-deeper

“It is difficult, but it is a nice challenge,” Navas says. “Always playing against the best teams, and living these experiences, having the opportunity to beat them. The games are there to play, and we will have the mentality that we are going out to win. We are very happy and looking forward to the moment coming.”

The first game against Spain today (Wednesday) at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha will be extra special given Navas lived and played for nine years in the country, and his family still keep a house in Madrid.“I still have a great feeling for Spain,” Navas says. “I hope we can beat them in the game, and that both teams can qualify from the group. It is always a national team that I will support — in Spain, they treated me very well. I lived many years there, some lovely moments.”

Maybe no team in Qatar will rely so much on one player — when back-up goalkeeper Leonel Moreira of Costa Rican league side Alajuelense replaced Navas in the first qualifying meeting with the U.S., he was responsible for an own goal that cost his team the game.

Navas’ back issue in recent months is an obvious concern, particularly as Donnarumma has played every minute of PSG’s games so far in 2022-23. In need of game time, it was not ideal for Navas when last week’s warm-up friendly against Iraq was cancelled by the Costa Rica federation at the last minute. His last competitive action was the play-off against New Zealand in June.

Navas maintains that he is fit and has been training as well as ever. This will not be the first time in his career that his country can be a boost after troubles at club level.

“(Being with the national team) always helps me,” Navas says. “When you are in a work atmosphere where things are not so good, where things are happening that you do not like, where really you are no longer someone important, then you can move to something completely different. Going with the national team always renews my energy, and makes me happy again. Then you have a different mentality afterwards.”

January could see a resolution of Navas’ club situation — he still has 18 months left on his current contract but almost joined Napoli late in the summer transfer window. His priority is to play games now, whether at PSG or elsewhere.

But such discussions will have to wait until after the tournament. “For Costa Rica to make the World Cup is great for everyone in the country,” he says. “Now we are there, we are going out to win our games, that is clear.

“But you cannot cover the sun with a finger, as we say. It is a success to reach the tournament, not a failure if we do not get out of the group. For a country like Costa Rica, to be at a World Cup, has to bring joy.”

(Top photo: Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)

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