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Shadowed by the Hand of God

FIFA World Cup

Costa Rica 1990 squad's special bond

Mauricio Montero, right, and Costa Rica reached the round of 16 in their first World Cup appearance in 1990.
Mauricio Montero, right, and Costa Rica reached the round of 16 in their first World Cup appearance in 1990.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- The day after Costa Rica qualified for the second round of the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a middle-aged man went to visit a friend in the hospital. He took the elevator up to the sixth floor and wandered down the ward looking for the room. Another visitor recognized him. That's not unusual. Everyone in Costa Rica recognizes Roger Flores, the captain of the 1990 World Cup team, known simply as Italia 1990. The man also knew who Flores had come to visit: Hermidio Barrantes, the backup keeper on that team.

"Hermidio is in that room," the man told Flores, pointing the way.

Flores visited his friend, posed for pictures with the nurses, then got out his phone to call his teammates to pass along the good medical report; still the captain, even two decades later. Later in a loud Cuban restaurant and dance hall, the night after Costa Rica played its final game of the group stage, he is asked how many of his 22 former teammates he has programmed in his phone.

"Todos," he says.

A team is more than a group of names on a roster memorized by fans. It's a living thing, its own universe, and the men who played together on such a public stage take those bonds with them when it comes time to exit that stage. They look out for one another, and fight with one another, and with any outsider who tries to do the same. They stand at weddings and, one day, at funerals, although Italia 1990 has been lucky so far. They know each others' parents and each others' children. They scold one another about drinking too much, and are there for those late-night phone calls, melancholy about the loss of something they can't quite define.

A great team has the gravity of its success to keep it together. Flores and his teammates are always together. Earlier that day, he and two other guys watched the game with the top clients from a big bank, the kind of event they can make a living attending. They are famous, but something more than that, too. They are folk heroes. Next to Flores at dinner is Costa Rican movie director Miguel Gomez, who tries to explain to foreigners how this particular team lives in the national memory. The team went to Italy and beat Scotland, lost by a single goal to Brazil and then beat Sweden 2-1 to advance to the knockout round. Many of the players worked real jobs, too, driving taxis or chopping sugar cane. They played in used cleats. They didn't make excuses.

"Have you seen the movie 'Miracle'?" Gomez asks.

He points to his own life to show what their example did for Costa Ricans.

"I was 8," he says.

Gomez, 31 now, formed his first clear memories watching those 23 guys take on the world. The 1990 team informed his sense of what it meant to be Costa Rican, and without it, he never would have left for Hollywood to work in movies. Flores and his teammates taught a generation how to dream.

A few years ago, Gomez worked on one of the "Iron Man" movies with Robert Downey Jr., in the art department, and when he wrapped that job, he wanted to come home and make a superhero movie of his own. "Who were the heroes I worshipped when I was a kid?" he says. " It was all of these guys."

The movie, "Italia '90," premiered this month in Costa Rica, and the team attended. Gomez got overwhelmed seeing them lined up, knowing that he'd lined them up. For Flores and his teammates, watching the film brought on waves of nostalgia, too. He misses the game and playing it with his friends. His wife smiles. "He dreams he's playing football sometimes," she says. "His legs will kick."

The most emotional part of the movie for Flores was hearing the 1990 World Cup anthem again. Even now, he avoids the song because it takes him back 24 years, and those memories always make him emotional.

He stirs his non-alcoholic drink and smiles, thinking about the song.

"I feel everything when I hear it," he says.

He remembers his father, dead for 15 years now. His dad, Flores says, wasn't an "emotional or affectionate man," a simple description seeming to contain a childhood of affirmation sought and denied. The smooth autopilot storyteller facade drops briefly when he brings up his father. "When I came back from the World Cup," he says, "he grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me. It was incredible."

The joy of winning comes back, and more and more, so do the regrets of the things left unaccomplished. He knows now that 1990 was his one chance at doing something great, and while he is famous for taking a team farther than anyone expected, deep down inside, he has this nagging sense that he settled, that he failed. What if he'd pushed harder, or demanded more? "Sometimes I wonder if we actually did the best we could," he says. "That's something I'll always wonder."

He remembers coming home from Italy, not understanding what awaited him on the ground. The pilot brought the plane in low, breaking out of the clouds. He made a lap of the entire nation, and people came out of their houses to see the great heroes fly overhead. Everyone brought mirrors, flashing a greeting with the reflected light from the sun. The pilot invited Flores up to the cockpit and told him to look down, and when he did, he saw the ground below sparkling. "There were mirrors all over the country," Flores says, and even today, he can still feel their warming glow.