By Simon Evans
(Reuters) – Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas is the most successful football export the Central American country has produced and his quiet but determined leadership will be central to his nation’s hopes in Russia.
While several of the generation who reached the last eight of the World Cup four years ago have enjoyed lengthy careers in Europe and, before them, Paulo Wanchope made a mark in England, none has achieved as much as the Real Madrid goalkeeper.
Navas has two Champions League titles and a Spanish league title to his name with Real and despite constant suggestions that Zinedine Zidane might be looking elsewhere for another keeper the Costa Rican has kept his spot.
His ability to put aside these doubts and the frequent unfavourable comparisons to Spain’s Manchester United keeper David De Gea, who was once lined up to replace him, is no surprise to those who know Navas’s background and the adversity he handled so well on his way to the top.
Navas was born in the town of San Isidro in the agricultural Perez Zeledon region in the south of Costa Rica, to working-class parents.
When his mother and father emigrated to the United States, he was brought up by his grandfather and his early football experience was tough, with his local team Municipal Club Perez Zeledon rejecting him as being too small.
He was forced to leave behind his small rural hometown and move to the capital San Jose at the age of 14 as he sought to get his opportunity with the country’s most successful club, Deportivo Saprissa.
At Saprissa, now 1.85 metres tall, the deeply Catholic Navas won six domestic league titles and the CONCACAF Champions League before moving to Albacete in Spain’s second division, then Levante.
His superb performances for Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup won him worldwide recognition and persuaded Real to pay his buy-out fee to Levante and bring him to the Bernabeu.
Despite the doubters, he has been a big part of a golden era for Real in European competition, cementing his status as one of the most successful players to emerge from Central America.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ian Chadband)