For a country often referred to as the “Switzerland of the Americas” for its perceived political stability in a region often bedeviled by unrest, these days trouble never seems to be too far in the distance as far as Costa Rica’s domestic football leagues are concerned.
The latest case in point surrounded a protracted dispute over relegation from the Central American nation’s top flight, the coveted First Division.
In a controversy that one observer commenting on the website of the country’s leading newspaper, La Nacion, said made the Costa Rican football authorities appear as though they were running the league in the manner of a corner store, three principal actors found themselves at loggerheads over whether bottom club Orion should be automatically relegated, stay in the top league, or face a relegation play-off.
In the end, the Costa Rican Football Federation (Fedefutbol) won the battle and ordered that a play-off be staged between Orion, who finished bottom of the First Division with just eight points, and Carmelita, the team who finished runner-up in the league below, the Second Division, after the lower league’s own championship play-off final.
Neither the league arbiter Unafut nor basement boys Orion had been prepared to accept a play-off: The former declared that Orion should be automatically relegated and the club insisted they should be allowed to remain based on alleged rule breaches at other clubs.
The dispute has its roots in the previous campaign when Barrio Mexico, previously known as Liberia Mia, were kicked out of the league following financial irregularities involving their owner, who is now locked up in the United States after being convicted in connection with a multi-million-dollar fraud. That left the division with just 11 clubs, one fewer than its full complement of 12, as the 2011-12 season got underway.
By late April, Unafut, made up of the league’s existing 11 clubs, had voted to automatically banish the bottom club to the Second Division. But after the intervention of Fedefutbol, the country’s principal football authority, it became clear the rules originally approved by the federation’s executive committee in June 2011 for the season ahead were contrary to the course of action Unafut had balloted, yielding five votes in favour, one against and five abstentions.
According to reports, the June 2011 rules stated that the Second Division champions (Uruguay de Coronado) would ascend automatically, while the last-placed team in the First Division and the runner-up in the Second would meet in a play-off to determine the 12th side in the top league, thereby replenishing the championship to its original complement.
But in December 2011, the rules agreed were altered, the local press reports said, and it was decided that the play-off be scrapped and the bottom-placed side in the First be relegated automatically after a new version of Liberia Mia was affiliated to the league. Under this scenario, the Second Division champions plus Liberia Mia would also return the league to its original order of 12 once the bottom side was relegated. However, Unafut also left open the possibility of relegation being frozen in the event that Liberia Mia – still undergoing a court battle that will determine its future – prove unable to meet league requirements.
Then in April, Unafut undertook the controversial ballot that would have seen Orion relegated automatically. Under that set of circumstances, in the event that Liberia Mia had failed to comply with regulations, the league would have started the 2012-13 season with only 11 teams.
That’s where Fedefutbol stepped in, ordering that the June 2011 rules be applied. Which is where things appeared to stand come the time of publication of this article.
But just to confuse matters further, in the event that Liberia Mia surmount the obstacles in front of them, the league could still end up with an odd number of teams next season.
As of the current rules of the game ordered by Fedefutbol, the league could end up comprising 13 teams, including the Second Division champions, the winner of the play-off and a green-lighted Liberia Mia.
The toll of this off-field drama cast a dark shadow over what should otherwise have been a season of celebration for the country’s domestic game. With each Costa Rican league campaign divided up into two separate battles – a winter league (Apertura) and a summer league (Clausura) – un-fancied Perez Zeledon came out on top of the Clausura with 37 points from 20 games. That was the theme of the top four in the table as Santos de Guapiles – who finished second ahead of perennial big guns Saprissa and Herediano – ended up among the quartet making up the clubs in the semi-finals of the play-off battle for the national championship crown.
Recent years have seen financial troubles and courtroom battles stalk the league. The most high-profile recent example involves Herediano, eventual winners of the 2012 Clausura championship final against Santos de Guapiles and one-time club as both player and manager of Costa Rican cult figure Paulo Wanchope. Additionally, allegations over the tangled web of name changes and the issue of legal names and operating names continue to shroud the league in controversy.
Indeed, as May drew to a close, Orion president Juan Luis Hernandez was still disputing the fact his club was being forced to contest the relegation/promotion play-off at all, citing irregularities at other clubs in the First Division that should mean that another club be forced to contest the tie. He says the club barely has a player left after a mass exodus at the close of last season. Doubts remain whether a side representing Orion will appear for the showdown at all. The two-leg affair is scheduled for June 10 and 17.
Some local fans have held up the relegation debacle as a fine example of football governance in the Third World. Yet, in other areas of society, it is clear Costa Rica is far from a Third World country, boasting near universal healthcare and education, legacies of an early focus on building a society founded on top of a solid social safety net. Perhaps this basic analysis of the country offers a window through which the country’s football authorities can view the future. The primal focus on healthcare and education yielded relative prosperity for the country and both areas stand out in the Central American sphere for their longevity – not traits Costa Rican football fans regularly lob at those running their domestic game.
The thirst by some for a more embryonic approach to club development is summed up by local fan and newspaper executive Jesus Bermudez, who abhors the loss of community and history by the American-style franchise-like system that operates in the Costa Rican leagues, which has seen several teams undergo name changes and uprooted to other parts of the country.
“I consider that if you have a team which supposedly is a professional one, you and the rest of the staff must keep the team alive no matter what happens,” he says. “For the simple reason that is the only way to get better and better. Also, this is a process and all processes need time to come up with results.”