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Amelia Valverde, the character of Costa Rica

The coach, who accepted the position at the age of 28 and has delivered plenty of success, is now facing criticism for her selection decisions and recent results

Jordi Quixano
Amelia Valverde
Amelia Valverde, during a Costa Rica match at the 2022 CONCACAF Championship.Thomas Shea (Reuters)

To everyone’s surprise — but with someone else’s blank checkbook as an argument — Carlos Avessidián decided to leave the Costa Rican women’s national team after guiding it to the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the nations’ first major tournament. With little time to spare until the tournament, the Costa Rica Football Federation (FCRF) offered the position to Amelia Valverde, who since 2011 had served as a fitness coach for the national team and later as Avessidián’s right hand. Although they did not win a game at the 2015 World Cup, under Valverde Costa Rica did secure draws against Spain and South Korea and were eliminated in the group stage only via a single Brazil goal in the final game. The players were received with honors on their return and the women’s game began to gain popularity among the country’s soccer-loving society. Eight years later, Costa Rica are back at a World Cup, where they will once again face Spain in their opening game, and once again with Valverde, now 36, on the bench. But her stellar past with the national team has now given way to criticism over her decisions and recent results, even if she has still has the recognition of the country’s soccer fans. Valverde, pure character, does not give a damn, as has always been the case in her career.

The daughter of a judge and a traffic policeman, Valverde knew from a young age that soccer was her calling. She would bury herself in televised matches, notebook in hand, studying tactics, strategy, the virtues of the players... The rest, the daily routine, was just a sideshow to her. She made that abundantly clear when she was three years old and her father took her to a store to buy her a pink dress: she left wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt. On the day of her college admission exam, her mother found her cleaning her boots because, Valverde told her, she intended to do the test quickly to get to the field. The ball was her life — she collected World Cup balls and the only Barbie she owned was the soccer doll — and although she always played with her cousins and her brother Ernesto, everything changed when her physical education teacher told her: “You kick the ball very well, why don’t you try out for [local side] San Ramón?” At the age of 15, she made his debut in the national first division, going on to play for Deportivo Saprissa and Flores. And from there, the bench was the logical progression.

When Flores sacked their coach in midseason in 2011 with no cash to spare for a replacement, the club offered Valverde the job at the age of 25. She accepted because she was more attracted to coaching than playing. She also began her trajectory with the national team the same year. With her at the helm, Costa Rica have won gold (2017) and silver (2018) at the Central American Games and bronze in the 2019 Pan American Games in addition to finishing fourth at the 2022 CONCACAF Championship to qualify for the World Cup. Valverde has made women’s soccer more visible in Costa Rica although there is still work to be done, as evidenced a few months ago when the federation issued an official statement condemning sexist abuse towards the players on social networks. But this was far from Costa Rica’s only problem, as Valverde has made plain.

Valverde elected not to include veteran team captain Shirley Cruz, considered to be Costa Rica’s best player, in the World Cup squad, citing a lack of form, while at the same time not calling up four other players who are close to Cruz. Critics in the press have suggested the coach wanted to nip a dissenting voice in the bud, removing a possible ringleader ready for insurrection. And that decision could decide her own future, given that recent results have been very poor - two wins and two draws in the team’s last 18 games. But Valverde, who cites José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Luis Enrique as her role models, will apply her own law: “The role of a coach, of a leader, of a boss, that someone is at the top of the hierarchy, is key.” And she points to the Costa Rican condition to surmount these problems: “When things are more difficult, when we are at a disadvantage, our DNA comes out, the Pura Vida. Unfortunately, we like to suffer too much sometimes. But with soccer we have a tool to be able to represent the country, to be able to fight, because we don’t have an army.” And in the face of criticism, she points to a simple fact: “There are 211 federations in FIFA and we have the privilege of being one of the 32 [at the World Cup].”

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