Costa Rica doesn’t have a vast history when it comes to international football. They’ve earned a few World Cup qualifications, shockingly making the quarter-finals in 2014; they have an ancient record of success in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, with their three tournament wins coming in 1963, 1969 and 1989 and they’ve also made a few appearances at the Copa América. Other than that, the likes of Paulo Wanchope, Walter Centeno and Bryan Ruiz have garnered significant attention, but it must be said that their greatest player is arguably Keylor Navas, the goalkeeper who would bring in all the silverware.
Apart from his obvious goalkeeping talents, one of Navas’ biggest qualities is his lack of showmanship. In a team of superstars that have done well in some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Navas has quietly gone about his business – and he’s done an excellent job. The Costa Rican is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers of this decade in LaLiga, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, because his time at Real Madrid has been one of uncertainty, with the question of his departure and/or replacement always looming large. Yet, he has done a terrific job, keeping his head down, remaining professional and consistently putting in fine displays.
There is often chatter that being a goalkeeper in this era of Real Madrid’s success is a fairly standard job. Led by Zinedine Zidane and supported by heroes such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema, amongst others, Navas has often been under-appreciated, but his work has been vital. Oftentimes, he would be the stand-out performer in a game, which is a testament to his abilities because it’s difficult to earn the spotlight when the focus is on the others. That is what makes him such a fine, likable athlete and as he heads to the French capital to start a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, it is worth noting that he has had an extraordinary career.
Navas’ rise to the bright lights of Paris via that glory in Madrid was anything but simple. Born and raised in poverty in Costa Rica, his early years saw his parents move around North America to make ends meet. A young Keylor was forced to stay behind with his grandparents as his family made key decisions, but from a young age, it was his family that would instill the love of football in him. From a young age, his ambition to become a professional goalkeeper would begin and at the age of seven, he would join the Pedregoso Soccer School in his native Costa Rica.
It was here that he would learn the trade and over the next few years, he would make significant progress. Right from his youth, he would garner praise. Navas’ coach at youth level, Juan de Dios Madriz, who is also the founder of the Pedregoso Soccer School, was in awe of his talent: “He could kick with both feet; he was small but agile.” A few years later, he had a trial at local side Club Municipal Perez Zeledon, a club he has great links to, seeing as his father played there. However, his short height would see him face rejection, but his career wouldn’t stop there. Navas then moved to the capital to join Deportivo Saprissa and this would be the beginning of a great story.
Having gone through the youth setup at Saprissa, Navas would work his way to the senior team, making his debut for the club in November 2005 as an 18-year-old. Still inexperienced, he would spend much of his early years as a senior professional on the bench or in the reserves, making only a few appearances as a starter. It wasn’t until 2008 when Navas, now 21, would start staking a claim for more first-team opportunities. At the time, Saprissa were the dominant force in Costa Rica, forming a dynasty and winning successive league titles. By the time Navas became a permanent fixture in the first team, he already had three league titles to his name.
Over his time as a first-choice goalkeeper, he would add three more titles, making this a highly successful spell whilst also garnering interest from abroad. His young age, quick reflexes and agility made him a topic of discussion across several boardrooms in Major League Soccer and Europe. Eventually, he would make the move to Spain in July 2010, transferring to Albacete in the Spanish Segunda División. This spell was quite the opposite as compared to Sabrissa and he would leave after a year, joining Levante – initially on loan – having suffered relegation. For the next two years, he would play second fiddle to Gustavo Munúa, but once he was promoted, he enjoyed a historic season.
Having been a solid mid-table club in the previous seasons, there wasn’t much different expected from Levante. Navas, however, had other ideas and put in one of the most consistent LaLiga displays by a goalkeeper in this decade. It was a season that earned him the spotlight and made him a target for many clubs across Europe. The Costa Rican played all but one of the league games that season, making a league-high 267 saves over the season (7.4 per game on average), conceding 39 goals – the fourth lowest in the league which is a mammoth achievement when his defence is compared to others, and an overall save percentage of 87.3.
Seeing as the team scored just 35 goals that season, the joint third-lowest in the league, there seems to be no doubt that without his influence, Levante would certainly have been relegated. Instead, and much to Navas’ credit, they finished 10th. After that fine season, there would be two career-changing phases in the goalkeeper’s career.
The first was the World Cup in Brazil, where Costa Rica were placed in a group alongside Uruguay, Italy, and England, who had seven World Cup wins between them. The Central Americans were expected to be the punching bags in a group that had the firepower of Luis Suárez, Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge. However, knowing how Navas likes to go about his business, he set fire to pre-tournament predictions and was a mammoth figure once again as they would win their opening two matches against Uruguay and Italy before a goalless draw against England in the final group match meant that Costa Rica would win their group against all odds.
From there, they would face Greece in the round of 16 and it was here that he put arguably his finest display of the summer. Navas produced several vital saves in normal time, before going on to deny Theofanis Gekas in the shoot-out to ensure a Costa Rican spot in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The magical summer would end against eventual bronze-medalists, the Netherlands, but it was a glorious summer for player and country nonetheless as they achieved a historic finals finish.
Such was his fame that even Club Municipal Perez Zeledon, the club that rejected him as a youngster, planned to rename their stadium after the local icon. However, that notion could not go through as such distinct honours are only given to the deceased. Nevertheless, it was clear that no matter what happened in the future, his name was etched as a Costa Rican legend forever.
The second career-changing phase was the transfer from Levante to Real Madrid, as Los Blancos recognised the goalkeeper’s unique talents and gave him the opportunity to play with and against the best. Signing for a lowly €10 million (his release clause at Levante), there wasn’t too much expectation as he was backed to be the second-choice, behind club legend Iker Casillas. Minutes on the pitch would be too few and too far in between as Navas would go from one of the best goalkeepers in the league in the previous season to an understudy in this one.
The summer that followed was certainly eventful. After Real Madrid’s failure in the 2014-15 season that led to the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, there was hope that he would be given a greater role under new boss Rafael Benítez and that view was enhanced by the fact that Casillas had also left the club. He would adopt the goalkeeper-preferred number one shirt, but there were still doubts over his future. Real Madrid wanted to bring in David de Gea, the widely-touted successor to Casillas at club and international level and worked hard to secure a deal with Manchester United.
A transfer was agreed with the English club on the final day of the transfer window which would have seen Navas going to Old Trafford, but the failure to submit the necessary documents to FIFA before the transfer deadline meant that the deal collapsed. This resulted in an awkward situation where Spain’s most successful club were left with a goalkeeper they clearly didn’t want and probably didn’t have too many plans for as their primary target would go on and sign a lucrative new contract at Manchester United. What was seen as inconvenient for both parties would end up working out as a treat, though.
That season, Real Madrid started poorly under Benitez and a 4-0 defeat at home against Barcelona was the final nail in the coffin for the Spanish coach’s stint at the club. Navas was the clear first choice in the league and Champions League and his performances were decent. Benitez was replaced by club legend Zinedine Zidane, who would oversee a change of fortunes as their form picked up drastically. In the Champions League, they would overcome AS Roma, Wolfsburg (after being two goals down in the first leg) and Manchester City on their way to making the final against local rivals Atlético Madrid in Milan.
Their league title chase was over, but the perfect way to end a season that had a tumultuous start was to win the biggest club prize in Europe. In the process, Navas would become the first-ever Costa Rican footballer to play in the Champions League final and some two hours later, he would become the first Costa Rican to win the Champions League. Real Madrid would beat Atléti on penalties and Navas was crucial once again. He made a few key stops in normal time as the club won their second European title in three years.
That season ensured Zidane kept his faith in his goalkeeper and while rumours of De Gea’s arrival would continuously don the papers, nothing concrete ever materialised that would trouble Navas too much. The next season was even more successful than the previous one. Here, he would put in good displays and make imperative saves in the league as the likes of Espanyol, Athletic Club, and Real Betis would all face the best of him.
It was in games like these, against mid-table clubs, where Real Madrid would drop points and subsequently lose their bearings in their title charge, but now, with a re-assuring back-line that was well-supported and well-organised by Navas, they were able to put the pieces together. Even a late-season defeat at home to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona couldn’t stop them.
In the end, they would win their first LaLiga title since 2012, but their season wasn’t finished. They were looking to make history by becoming the first club of the Champions League era to retain the famous trophy and after beating Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid in the knockout rounds, Juventus would be in their way of a 12th overall European Cup honour in Cardiff.
Navas was hardly troubled here as a thorough Real Madrid smashed the Bianconeri 4-1. The goalkeeper was beaten by an astounding Mario Mandžukić goal, but other than that, it was a pretty routine evening for him. Real Madrid made history with Navas being a key part of it over the last two years and all of a sudden, the broken fax machine which blocked David de Gea’s move to the Spanish capital was forgotten and perhaps even forgiven, as Los Blancos had an adequate replacement for Casillas waiting in reserve and ready for action whenever called upon.
It was much of the same in the next season as Real Madrid would add in more silverware. The league campaign was rather dire, and they were out of the race for mounting a serious title challenge after a late-December defeat at home against Barcelona. In Europe, however, their knack for rising from the ashes continued. Like two years ago, they dropped their domestic hopes and put full focus on the Champions League. This road, though, was far sterner.
This side was far more accustomed to the 180 minutes of knockout football rather than a strenuous 38-game league season and it showed. In the knockout rounds, Real Madrid faced the French, Italian and German champions on the way to the final and they were all dispatched with little trouble. Paris Saint-Germain, a side containing the likes of Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappé, were put aside 5-2 on aggregate; Juventus were defeated 4-3 and it was the same for Bayern Munich, where Navas earned high praise in the second-leg for almost single-handedly ensuring that his side made the final with a string of high-quality saves.
The final against Liverpool was typical Real Madrid once again. Untroubled, untouchable and having a stroke of luck. Navas’ goalkeeping counterpart on the other end, Loris Karius, had a night to forget with two horror errors as the capital side won an amazing third-successive Champions League honour and their 13th overall. In the end, Navas was voted as the tournament’s best goalkeeper that season, fending off competition from AS Roma’s Alisson Becker and Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon.
This would, sadly, be his last season as the undisputed starter. After a bland World Cup where Costa Rica were eliminated in the group stages and failed to repeat the magic of four years ago, Navas was also replaced at club level as Thibaut Courtois – the Golden Glove winner at the finals in Russia for Belgium – was brought in from Chelsea. Navas returned to the supporting role once again, but the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Zinedine Zidane meant that Real Madrid endured a season to forget, being knocked out of the Champions League in the second round, failing to mount a title challenge and hardly competing for the Copa del Rey.
It would be his last season in the Spanish capital, as Navas would finally leave, going to Paris Saint-Germain.
So what is Keylor Navas’ legacy in the game in this modern era of goalkeepers? On one side, it could be argued that he’s a Real Madrid legend, seeing as he was a key part of the core team that won three Champions League titles on the bounce and was hardly troubled by competition. Only the likes of Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo can stake a claim for that. Even superstars like Gareth Bale, Isco and James Rodríguez couldn’t follow suit, which is a testament to how highly many thought of Navas.
It could also be said that his rather under-the-radar approach and the lack of love from the Real Madrid boardroom has forced him to become an afterthought in the minds of many neutrals. Navas has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in Spain over the last decade, pulling off an excellent season with Levante and then three more with Real Madrid as an undisputed number one, but it is perhaps his lack of marketability that takes the focus away from him and doesn’t give him the recognition he deserves.
But it is clear that he is a wonderful player and an even better person, and he hasn’t forgotten where he has come from. He now has the chance at Paris Saint-Germain to rebuild his status and with little competition, he will be the primary starter here as well. The Parisians have enjoyed a fine transfer window, reinforcing their midfield, retaining Neymar and adding to their firepower in attack with the signing of Mauro Icardi. Their lack of success in Europe has, in a very small way, been due to the lack of know-how in knockout competitions for players and managers, but with an experienced, cool head like that of Navas, they have a gem on their books.
A humble, down-to-earth character that will take anything and everything in his stride, Keylor Navas now begins a new challenge with good memories of the old ones.
Sergio Ramos, his former captain, wrote about the goalkeeper after his departure: “Your mentality, your hard work, and your human qualities speak for you wherever you go.” It seems like a simple, perhaps clichéd following a transfer, but it certainly rings true in the case of Navas, for he has been a quiet winner that has done it all.
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