Humble keeper Keylor Navas inspiring Costa Rica to new heights
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- The question of who is the best current player from the CONCACAF region flummoxes Costa Ricans. It provokes raised eyebrows and startled looks. The answer for Ticos is obvious: Keylor Navas.
The Real Madrid and Costa Rica No. 1 showed exactly why they, and many others, think that way when he produced a magical save in the 67th minute of Costa Rica's 2-0 win over the United States on Friday, when the score was 1-0 and the game was in the balance.
On Tuesday, Navas will look to help his national team secure a place at Russia 2018 against Mexico in Estadio Nacional.
"Keylor has been a great player for a long time," Costa Rica full-back Cristian Gamboa told ESPN FC on Sunday.
"Obviously, now the cameras are on him, and the focus is greater. He has showed and is showing that he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world."
But it isn't just what Navas does on the pitch that has propelled the 30-year-old to almost superhero status in the Central American country. It's Navas' backstory and the way he has confronted stardom that have struck a chord and provided inspiration in the nation of just under five million.
"He's the best player to come out of this country," fan Joel Herrera said outside the Saprissa -- Navas' first professional team -- stadium on Sunday ahead of the match against Grecia.
"The man represents what superacion and persistence is. He's Superman here."
The word superacion -- literally "overcoming" -- is one you hear a lot when you ask Ticos about Navas. The goalkeeper was born and raised by working class parents in the town of San Isidro in the agricultural Perez Zeledon region in the south of Costa Rica.
Navas was brought up mainly by his grandfather after his parents emigrated to the United States -- like many in the region -- and was rejected by the local professional team at age 13 for being too small.
At age 14, he made the bus trip from his rural province and headed to the capital of San Jose to try his luck at Costa Rican giant Saprissa. He went on to guide the team to six domestic league titles and the CONCACAF Champions League before moving to Albacete in Spain's second division, then Levante and finally landing at Real Madrid in 2014, following a fine World Cup that year.
Navas' hardships and difficult rise to the elite of the world game are obviously well-known in Costa Rica but perhaps less so outside.
"It is a story of superacion," journalist Graciela Fonseca, who covers Costa Rica for CRHoy.com, told ESPN FC.
"He was born into a humble family in a humble town, and he's reached where he has thanks to his character."
Added Daniel Jimenez, who follows the Costa Rican national team for La Nacion: "[People] know it hasn't been easy to get to where he is as Real Madrid's starting keeper and one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
"He's a symbol demonstrating that he who really wants something can do it. His story inspires."
Taxi driver Johnny Meza gets excited talking about Navas to a foreign journalist. He gives the example of Navas taking a regular boat out to fish when on vacation back home this past summer. Small details such as that seem to matter for Costa Ricans.
"[Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi would take a huge yacht," Meza said. "Navas doesn't forget his people or where he comes from."
Asked in a recent interview with La Nacion whether he is bothered by the amount of attention he gets in Costa Rica when he returns to his country, Navas didn't seem overly concerned by it.
"The vast majority of people are very educated," Navas said. "My family and I enormously appreciate the affection that they give us when we are walking on the street or go to dinner in some restaurant in the capital.
"We don't have any complaints -- quite the opposite."
If this all sounds like a script from a movie, it is. A film based on Navas' life is currently in the final stages of production. It is titled "Hombre de Fe," (Man of faith), likely in part due to Navas' religiosity and probably also because of the drive it has taken for him to reach nine titles and more than 100 games with Real Madrid.
The success Navas has achieved has never been seen in Costa Rican football and has changed the logistical operation of the whole national team.
"The national team has put on special security," said journalist Fonseca.
"When we go to Mexico, or the United States, to Honduras, people look for Keylor Navas. Teammates have had to adapt as well because Keylor gets all the attention, not them, but it is part of him being a Real Madrid player."
The attention doesn't seem to have stopped Navas from attending to fans, even if it is difficult.
"I can tell you with complete certainty that he signed gloves, shirts, took videos and photos with lots of fans [during the trip to the United States]," said Jimenez, who was covering the Costa Rica team up north.
"I can tell you his humility is 100 percent real."
It all makes one wonder whether Navas -- one of the 24 nominees for FIFA's 2017 "The Best" prize -- would receive even more recognition in the CONCACAF region as a whole if he were from a bigger country such as Mexico or the United States.
Perhaps a more appropriate question for Costa Ricans and others to ponder moving forward is whether the 30-year-old from San Isidro can go on to become the CONCACAF region's greatest player ever. The way things are going right now, he surely won't be far off.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.