The scenes at Augusto C. Sandino airport were worthy of a rock star, possibly even a pope. Thousands flocked to the terminal on the outskirts of Managua to greet Óscar Duarte, a star of Costa Rica’s glorious World Cup campaign, as he returned on Thursday to the country of his birth. More than 600 young people were reported to have arrived in buses from his home town of Catarina to see the defender arrive with his mother and wife, and the governing party’s youth movement were out in force. Everyone wanted a piece of the 25-year-old and the walk to the waiting car resembled something out of A Hard Day’s Night.
A country’s pride – especially a small country of six million people – in one of its successful sons is not in itself so remarkable. But Duarte had excelled at soccer, and Nicaragua is a country addicted to baseball. Already credited with building bridges between two historically antagonistic neighbors, could he now be weaning Nicaraguans off their baseball habit?
Duarte was born in a town 20 miles south-east of Managua, but as a boy he moved with his family to Costa Rica, like so many other Nicaraguans, in search of opportunities unavailable at home. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans live and work in more prosperous Costa Rica, where they often face discrimination.
The long-running border dispute between the two countries, centered on the San Juan river, periodically erupts into saber-rattling, diplomatic demarches and trips to the International Court of Justice.
And while Nicaragua has a history of political turmoil, war and revolution, Costa Rica is an oasis of calm and stability. With no standing army (although that did not stop it pocketing millions of dollars in military aid from the Reagan administration as part of its campaign against Nicaragua in the 1980s), it boasts of being the Switzerland of Central America and is known to legions of foreign tourists as a paradise of sun-kissed beaches and nature reserves. Nicaraguans admire the achievements of their southern neighbor but at the same time the sense of superiority that Costa Ricans do so little to disguise can often feel insufferable.
But in the afterglow of Costa Rica’s success in Brazil, and Duarte’s part in it, such petty animosities have been overwhelmed by Central American solidarity and a general Nicaraguan love-in with its southern neighbor – much of it expressed on social media. Amid the euphoria it was almost possible to believe that a revival of the Central American federation that briefly united the two countries with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala after independence from Spain, could one day be a 21st century reality.
Even Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, not previously known for his enthusiasm for either soccer or Costa Rica, took time out from a meeting with the Chinese businessman planning to build a controversial interoceanic canal through the country to exclaim: "Didn't Costa Rica do well at this World Cup! They did really well!"
Nicaragua’s own World Cup had effectively taken place between September and November 2011 when they played qualifiers against Dominica and Panama home and away. Victories against the tiny Caribbean island nation were overshadowed by home and away losses to Panama. But through the Costa Rican team Nicaraguans have taken pride in fellow Central Americans making a mark on the world stage.
As a sport in Nicaragua soccer traditionally trails a long way in baseball’s wake, scrabbling for attention with boxing and cockfighting. As in Cuba, baseball is Nicaragua’s game and the country has supplied players such as Dennis Martínez and Vicente Padilla to the major leagues in the US.
A clear sign of the huge upsurge in interest generated by Costa Rica’s run to the World Cup quarter-finals was that on the website of one of Nicaragua’s leading newspapers, the doyen of the country’s baseball writers, Edgar Tijerino, had been drafted in to present his video preview of Sunday’s final between Argentina and Germany. As with earlier games, crowds in the Nicaraguan capital will follow the action at a fan park with giant screen set up by the government on one Managua's main thoroughfares.
Duarte’s own World Cup included the high of scoring against Uruguay – the first by a son of Nicaragua – and also the low of a harsh sending-off against Greece that meant he missed the Ticos’ quarter-final against the Dutch.
The defender, who plays for Club Brugge in Belgium, held a press conference in Managua at which he assured his listeners that "always, wherever I am, I'll have a little piece [of Nicaragua] in my heart." Then he headed to Catarina for a civic reception and time with his family. Naturally this too involved being mobbed by hundreds more well-wishers. “I don’t have words to express my thanks for the affection the Nicaraguan people are showing me,” he said on Facebook.
As it happens, Duarte’s home town is a few miles down the road from Diriamba, which can claim to be the spiritual home of Nicaragua’s small band of diehard soccer enthusiasts. Nicaragua may be a long way from producing a competitive international side of its own but now aspiring players have their own homegrown hero. Maybe, just maybe, baseball had better watch out.