Navas: a national treasure traded for 100 soccer balls

The Costa Rican goalkeeper has arrived in the elite 11 years after he was sold at a bargain price

San José (Costa Rica) -
Real Madrid’s new goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, signing autographs for fans at the airport on Sunday.
Real Madrid’s new goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, signing autographs for fans at the airport on Sunday.EFE

Legend has it Keylor Navas’s hometown team traded him for 50 soccer balls. His first professional soccer club, Saprissa, signed him when he was 16 years old. Navas was living in San Andrés de San Isidro de El General, an area south of Central Valley. His parents, like hundreds of other Valley residents, immigrated to the United States when he was a child. Now, he is leaving to go take his place among soccer’s global stars.

No one knows if the legend is true or not, but the official story about this skinny, well-mannered youth is not too different from the myth. Pedregoso director Guillermo Trejos told La Nación newspaper that Saprissa, one of the country’s best clubs, bought Navas from the neighborhood team for $2,000.

That amount is worth more than 50 soccer balls. It may even be worth 100 balls if they were bought today at the current exchange rate in a sports store in Costa Rica. The trade was a success for the small club, though later an attorney said it should have asked for at least $50,000. They knew Navas was a special goalie who could also play in other positions, which explains his good footwork. He was agile, equanimous, and a good student. Yet, no one imagined that 11 years later that boy would be the star taking off to become Real Madrid’s newest player.

Navas is married to the former model, Andrea Salas, and their relationship has already become international tabloid fodder. He met her at a Christian church in San José and they married without a big fuss. The couple have two children – a daughter from Salas’ previous relationship, whom Navas recognizes as his own, and a five-month old baby.

Navas and his family are headed to Madrid to challenge Iker Casillas for first place goalkeeper. The Spanish goalie and 2010 World Cup champion was already a megastar when Navas was still walking the streets of his humble neighborhood of 4,500 residents. The new Real Madrid star and his sister spent a good part of their childhood with their maternal grandparents as the parents lived and worked in the United States. They did not have much then except for prayers and the Christian faith his grandmother instilled in him.

They knew Navas was a special goalie who could also play in other positions, which explains his good footwork

The local soccer club, Municipal Pérez Zeledón, would have signed him but their minor leagues manager rejected Navas because of his height. He is now 1.87 meters tall, and the local stadium has just been renamed for him. After the Saprissa scout discovered Navas, he quickly bought him for $2,000. A bargain. The young player then moved to the capital where he lived alone and played for his new club.

Now, he has to make a different kind of jump. Navas, a man who has held on to his religious beliefs, told reporters gathered in the airport terminal area on Sunday: “I know God does not give you more than you can bear. I hope I can contribute and enjoy all of this. I have to keep working with humility… I have always thought so and I’ve asked God for health. I hope I can grow as a soccer player and as a person and put Costa Rica’s name up in lights.”

Real Madrid bought the Costa Rican goalkeeper for $10 million from another Liga Española team, Levante. Navas was considered last season’s best goalie in the Liga. Before Levante, he played for Albacete, following in the footsteps of the Costa Rican player, Luis Gabelo Conejo. Conejo became a Spanish soccer star after the 1990 World Cup games in Italy. He had left Saprissa for Albacete for contractual reasons.

The 27-year-old goalie used Brazil’s World Cup to advance his career. Navas showed his extraordinary skills and leadership during his team’s wonderful performance in the games. He only conceded two goals in five games against Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece and Holland. He was a key element in his team’s victories in Brazil.

Suddenly, Navas became a national hero, the idol of many and the de facto ambassador for a country with few claims to success in soccer. But, that was before his move to the Champions League’s top club was confirmed. Now things have gotten serious.

The Department of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica published a statement congratulating Navas for “his personal achievement.” “When the world sees Keylor Navas’ name, they will also see Costa Rica so this is a cultural and sports event that will raise our international profile,” Foreign Minister Manuel González said in a statement. Authorities and fans know that Navas, a fervent Christian and married father of two, is not one to get involved in scandals.

Former Costa Rican presidents, fellow national team members, international soccer stars and his new Real Madrid teammates congratulated him on social media platforms. “Welcome; enjoy vacation time but @Cristiano and I will get you back in shape soon,” tweeted Álvaro Arbeloa, a defense player for Madrid. Navas’ neighbors in San Andrés and members of Costa Rica’s fan clubs - who are still celebrating their team’s performance in this year’s World Cup - held parties. Hundreds of them went to Juan Santamaría International Airport to bid farewell to their historic soccer player.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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