The CONCACAF Champions League game between D.C. United and Alajuelense started not in the city of the game for us at 7pm last Thursday, but at a hotel more than 50 miles southwest of the area in a town named Jaco.
"I'm from Alajuela..."
For the most part, Jaco is a beach town with a resort or two up one of the many mountains in Costa Rica.
Like a lot of these towns, they have their fair share of Americans or Europeans who regularly come down for holiday (we run into tourists from England, France and Australia alone). And we have done the same, keeping a low profile and relaxing, D.C. United hat aside. And when we were asked where we were headed, we said Alajuela for the game that night. I asked the hotel clerk Adrian what he thought of the game. The response?
"I don't know...", accompanied by a wider eyed expression and gritting of teeth. You know the expression, one where you're not sure what will happen but so long as embarrassment is not any part of the result. It was not real to us yet, because we were out of town. But also more importantly, we had to go through Costa Rican traffic to get to Alajuela, which is the capital of the province of the same name. It is the second largest city in Costa Rica before San Jose and is less than 3 miles from the airport, named after Juan Santamaria, whose death while fighting the takeover of the country made him a hero to the country.
A few words on Costa Rican traffic from Jaco to Alajuela or Tico traffic in general. Traffic is less of a concept and apparently more a series of assumptions. Lots of pedestrians walking along the sides of the road, and lots of motorcycles and mopeds, who pass at liberty, along with drivers, regardless of what the road indicates. If it's there to be done on the road, it is done in Costa Rica. Driving distance is approximately 50 miles, but driving time is almost two hours, partly due to the drivers, also partly due to the terrain to cross. Lots of hills and mountains, bridges that are partly scenic but are straightforward and serviceable. And that's before you get into town.
Once in Alajuela, we meet up with some of the traveling support from D.C. Numbering 34 total, a few others have made the trek down from Washington and surrounding areas, while some others who attend school in the country are fans and feel like cheering the team on. There are even two from England as part of the group, and they were "up for some singing and cheering" in a new environment. It hasn't really become real yet as you walk around the stadium, which is firmly in the middle of Alajuela. Lots of businesses like restaurants and stores, mixed in with an occasional brave soul who resides nearby, even a church or two.
But the closer you get to the stadium, the more and more you see the bars. It is where the fans of Alajuelense are, largely because the stadium forbids drinking. We find a bar and mingle with the locals, taking an occasionally hammy photo with them, wishing each other luck.
We meet up with the rest of the travelers, who have found their own adventures, and we are outside one of the larger bars for the Alajuelense supporters, and their Barra is getting warmed up:
The CONCACAF official and one of the police in charge of bringing us into the stadium give us last minute instructions, which in essence are to stay close, keep walking, and keep your hands on or in your pockets, so you don't get your pocket picked. The walk inside the stadium, with riot police on either side of you for the 25 yard walk from start to finish, where a half dozen police on horseback await, begins.
It's pretty real now.
Inside Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, whose capacity is 18,000, there is the tiniest thought as to what the fuss is about. Named after Alejandro Morera Soto, an Alajuela striker who scored at an almost goal a game pace for more than two decades, mostly with Alajuelense though he kept a similar pace when playing with Barcelona from 1933-35, the stadium has been in operation for 20 years longer than RFK Stadium. It did not start hosting night games until 1970, structurally and aesthetically, it kind of looks like it could serve as a decent high school football field in Texas. But not a lot of people have come inside yet.
Things get filled more and more. Ben Olsen comes by and says hi (credit the stupidhead who didn't think to take a pic sooner), and the team gets ready to go:
The game goes off, and fans are cheering and clapping. For orientation purposes, the Liga's Barra is seated in centered seating on our left, but they are singing at the end of that section. Yet for their cheering which would appear to be isolated at first, the crowd knows the songs and will join in happily and often through the game. "Vamos Liga" is familiar to ears that have heard "Vamos United" for years, but this has more passion and power behind it. When Ariel Rodriguez converts the penalty kick early in the game past Andrew Dykstra for a 1-0 Alajuelense lead, the place predictably erupts:
The game is not without moments, as Fabian Espindola's goal brings the travelers newfound vigor, and Dykstra's misplays bring them right back down again. The fans closest to us without the barrier of riot police taunt and hurl metaphoric coke cups full of abuse at us, but nothing that can't be easily shrugged off. The concession folks come by with sodas, waters, and hamburgers. One guy comes by with cups of green mango that appears to be julienned. You get your choice of sauces and including hot sauce, because, well, Costa Rica.
The point in the second half comes where Jairo Arrieta is subbed onto the field, replacing Chris Pontius. Before coming to the Columbus Crew, Arrieta cut his teeth in Costa Rica, playing for three teams, but notably for Saprissa, Alajuelense's rival. The reception as you can presume, was not entirely warm:
Arrieta is welcomed to chants reminding him of Saprissa's loss to Club America the previous night in CCL play, saying that (based on rusty Spanish) they eased off the wheel and that's why they lost. I am not sure if Arrieta takes the chants to heart, but he starts fouling Alajuelense players, and fans in the stands are going incrementally crazy. I swear I see some of the people standing in front of the fence considering climbing it to get to him. I have never seen so much visceral hate for one person at a sporting event. In a way, Arrieta has been the face of D.C. United since landing in San Jose Monday night. He spoke to press waiting for the team at the airport, and he will speak to the press after today's game. Much more quietly, Arrieta's former teammate at Saprissa (and current trialist at D.C. United) Alexander Robinson sits with the traveling support in the first half with his brother and friends, but starts to wander the section as the result appears more in hand.
The final whistle goes and the travelers await their release, which comes about a half hour after the game ends. As the Alajuelense fans stream out, one of two gestures appear, neither are what you think. The first is a sarcastic wave, reminiscent of the "You Came a Long Way Just to Lose" chant, but the second is similar, as it is a hand, but it is not waving. The message is clear: we got five, here are our five, please to count the five we got on you. There is little fight or sarcasm from the travelers, in fact I got a fan made sign with some Alajuelense signatures on it for the aforementioned hat. Not a big deal as I have another but more importantly, the message coming down from the group has been cordial with the fans who wish to be, and ignore those who don't. As I walk to my car, another fan asks for the scarf I brought to the game, which I am glad to give, along with my best wishes in the rest of the tournament should they advance in D.C.
Oddly enough, the game had not ended for me. Returning to the hotel and having the morning, more pictures were taken, including one promoting the previous night's game at a watch party using an ironic figure:
And it was not done still. Flying out, making our connection, the TSA Agent asked about my D.C. United hat, as he had heard of Manchester United, but who was D.C. United, and I explained who they were and where I was in the previous days.
The trips, and the games, rarely stop. And this is good.