Keylor Navas – Real Madrid’s Tico Superstar

Keylor Navas – Real Madrid’s Tico Superstar

Manuel Veth –

Keylor Navas is omnipresent when one wanders around the streets of Costa Rica’s capital San José, as many Ticos—as Costa Ricans call themselves—proudly wear his Real Madrid shirt—most of which are cheap knockoffs.

In fact, the presence of Real Madrid shirts is only second to that of the burgundy shirts of Costa Rica’s biggest club Deportivo Saprissa. Despite being born in San Isidro in the Pérez Zeledón region, which is located in the south west of the country, Navas is actually a Saprissa product, for the keeper was developed by Saprissa, and played professionally for the club between 2005 and 2010.

Keylor Navas – Costa Rica’s World Cup Legend

Costa Ricans are generally football mad, and their national team has a special place in the heart of most Ticos. Recent successes have also helped, as the country reached the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Cup, thanks largely to Keylor Navas, who played an outstanding tournament.

Street vendors selling Saprissa shirts—Costa Rica's most popular team—as well as a few Real Madrid knockoff shirts

Street vendors selling Saprissa shirts, as well as a few Real Madrid knockoff shirts – Image via Manuel Veth

Costa Rica were drawn in a group with Italy, England, and Uruguay, and it was largely expected that the Central Americans would finish the group last. Yet, Costa Rica won their first match against Uruguay 3-1 in what was one of the first major upsets of the tournament. They topped this result in their second match against Italy, which ended in a 1-0 victory for Costa Rica.

Navas was outstanding in the match, keeping a clean sheet and securing an early qualification to the round of 16. Costa Rica achieved a 0-0 tie in their final group match against England, thereby securing a first place finish in the group stage.

In the round of 16, Costa Rica faced Greece, but the match could not produce a winner after 120 minutes—the score stood at 1-1 with Costa Rica reduced to ten men. Navas was outstanding once again securing his country to first reach extra time, and then penalties. Then, during the penalty shootout, Navas spectacularly stopped a shot by Greek striker Theofanis Gekas, and that save was enough to see his country advance to the quarterfinal.

People in Costa Rica still speak about the World Cup in awe, as they feel that the tournament was the nation’s moment to shine. After every match, people came out, and “celebrated like we won the World Cup” Eduardo, who works in the country as a tour guide and, like every Tico, is a big football fan, explains to FutebolCidade. “Some even thought we could go all the way.”

Keylor Navas at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil - Image via abc

Keylor Navas at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – Image via

Of course, it wasn’t meant to be, as Costa Rica next faced the Netherlands. Once again Keylor Navas was outstanding, as he kept a clean sheet against the Dutch for a 120 minutes. Once again, penalties beckoned, but Dutch coach Louis van Gaal brought on his own penalty killer in Tim Krul, who ended up saving two penalties which helped the Netherlands advance to the semi-final.

Back in Costa Rica, the party was over but, people tell me that the defeat was accepted rather unemotionally. As Eduardo explained, “We were crying when we won, but when we lost we just went on with our lives.” At the same time, Costa Ricans are still proud of their achievements at the World Cup.

Keylor Navas From Levante to Real Madrid

Before the World Cup, Keylor Navas had a fantastic season at Levante UD, in which he aided the small club from Valencia to a tenth place finish in the Spanish La Liga. His exit clause of €10 million meant that several European clubs were interested in signing the Costa Rican. Then came his performances at the World Cup, after which, Real Madrid chose to exercise Navas’ exit clause at Levante on August 3, 2014.

In his first season at Madrid, Navas, however, had to play second fiddle to longstanding keeper and club legend, Iker Casillas. Casillas had lost his starting role under Real Madrid coach, José Mourinho, in 2013, who had brought in Diego Lopéz as the new number one in January 2013 after Casillas suffered a hand injury. Mourinho left in the summer of 2013, and was replaced by the Italian coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who, during the 2013-14 season, rotated between Casillas and Lopéz.

Keylor Navas playing for Levante UD - Image via abc

Keylor Navas playing for Levante UD – Image via

It was widely anticipated that both Lopéz and Casillas would leave the club at the end of the 2013-14 season, and that Navas would become the new number one keeper at the Bernabéu. But Casillas regained his starting position, and Navas only had six starts in La Liga, and another two in the UEFA Champions League.

Then, during the end of the 2014-15 season, Casillas fell out with Real Madrid’s management, and left the club for FC Porto in the summer. Navas’ future, meanwhile, looked like it would be away from the club as well, as Real Madrid had chosen Manchester United goalkeeper and Spain international David de Gea as the future number one keeper of the club.

The David De Gea Episode Gave Strength to Navas

Manchester United and Real Madrid had the deal all wrapped up—Real would have had to pay £29 million and was also ready to sent Navas to Manchester United. Yet, the transfer failed spectacularly on August 31, 2015, when Real—or Manchester United depending on who you ask—failed to submit the necessary paper work before the summer transfer deadline.

Navas later revealed that he was in tears after the transfer to Manchester United failed, stating that he never had any interest in leaving Real Madrid. He later told the Costa Rican radio station El Larguero that he was never in control of the situation, and that he waited at the airport to find out the final decision.

Those who believed that Navas’ game would suffer as a result of the entire affair were soon proven wrong, as Navas managed five consecutive games for Real Madrid without being scored on. In fact, Keylor Navas had a strong season at Real Madrid, which demonstrates his desire to remain the number one keeper at the club.

Costa Ricans certainly feel proud that one of their own plays for the self-proclaimed biggest club in the world. Saprissa fans and club officials are especially proud that a product of their academy is now playing for Real. On November 6, 2015 the club released a documentary on the goalkeeper, as a tribute to the ten-year anniversary of Navas’ debut for Saprissa’s first team.

Champions League Glory Could Cement Navas’ Place at Real

Yet, there is also fear in Costa Rica that Real could still sign David de Gea next summer, thereby effectively replacing Navas. One former Saprissa youth player told FutebolCidade, “We really want him to stay at Real, as he is a legend here.”

Real Madrid very much defines itself through spectacular signings, but Navas has proven that he can be a number one keeper at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Whether he stays will also depend somewhat on Real’s results this season, as Real still has a chance to win the league title.

But, for a club of Real’s stature, winning the UEFA Champions League is the highest priority, and Navas made an important clearance with just a few minutes to go in the match against Manchester City—in a game where he was largely underutilized as City never came close to testing Navas. Real Madrid’s 1-0 victory on May 4 sets up a famous Madrid Derby against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final on May 28 in Milan. This match will be widely anticipated in San José—Costa Ricans will be cheering for Navas to become the first Tico to win the Champions League, and to cement his place as a legend in world football.

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available to readers later this year. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.