On Saturday, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid kick off at the Camp Nou and the Mestalla, respectively. Between the two clubs, thirteen players return from international duty with Spain. With Euro 2012 qualifying over, these players earned quite a few frequent flyer miles courtesy of a trip to Costa Rica, which was more or less 30 hours of flying at 30,000 feet from Heathrow and back to Spain.
It’s no mystery as to why Spain traveled all the way down to San José. Money was waiting to be collected. Lots and lots of money. And at the moment FEDEFUTBOL, Costa Rica’s football federation, is sitting on a massive pile of cash.
Relative to Costa Rica’s socio-economic conditions, this money is an absolute anomaly. Though wealthier than surrounding nations such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica’s estimated income per capita is only just over $11,000 USD. But in the world of football, Costa Rica opened a 35,100 seat, $105 million Estadio Nacional in March, with money left over for high profile friendlies against Argentina, Brazil and Spain. There was even room to accommodate concerts from Shakira and Pearl Jam. The state-of-the-art stadium also has a running track, so a bid for the Pan American Games seems imminent.
If you’re a fan of ‘Los Ticos’, life seems pretty, pretty good. However, if you’re an average citizen, you’d be right to raise an eyebrow. This lavishness was funded entirely by the Chinese government.
According to the Chinese, this stadium is simply a donation to the Costa Rican people. Of course, in politics nothing is ever simple. So what terms did Costa Rica’s former President Oscar Arias agree to back in 2007 to make this ‘donated’ stadium a reality?
Again, the answer is not simple nor is it ideal.
First, Arias agreed that Chinese workers could build the stadium, despite the fact that Costa Rica was stricken with unemployment from the global economic crisis. He allowed the Chinese company in charge of the project, AFEC, to entirely bypass Costa Rica’s labor laws, which are notoriously strict. Though Costa Rica is a proud advocate of human rights, Chinese employees of AFEC worked inhumane hours right under the nose of the Costa Rican democracy. There was even one casualty on the project, as 37-year-old Liu Hong Bin was hit by a construction vehicle in November 2010. Putting human rights aside, the stadium barely stimulated Costa Rica’s economy, as even most of the materials used were shipped over from China.
This was only the beginning. Historically, Taiwan has been a great ally of Costa Rica. In fact, Costa Rica initially established diplomatic relations with China through their Taiwanese connection. Back in 2003, the ‘Puente de Amistad’ (Bridge of Friendship) opened. The Taiwanese Government, in exchange for commercial fishing rights, paid for it and helped finance numerous other projects. But as part of the agreement to build the Estadio Nacional, Oscar Arias agreed to terminate Costa Rica’s relationship with Taiwan altogether. He even agreed to change the name of the ‘Puente de Amistad’. The locals have taken care of that, as the suspension bridge is now commonly referred to as the ‘Puente de la Apuñalada’ (backstabbing bridge).
In the end though, supporting Chinese employment and isolating Taiwan politically and economically are mere afterthoughts. It’s always about the business and the effects of China’s new friendship with Costa Rica live on. Last April, only two weeks after the official opening of the Estadio Nacional, a Free Trade Agreement between the nations was agreed upon. China has become Costa Rica’s second biggest trading partner, behind only the United States. Costa Rica is a perfect example of China’s plan to establish Free Trade Agreements strategically, as they have done with Chile, Pakistan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Peru.
Within the sphere of football, the future looks bright for ‘Los Ticos’ with the Chinese supporting Costa Rica’s national pastime. But knowing what has been sacrificed, Costa Ricans are finding it difficult to accept China’s ‘gift’ with a clear conscience. As Axel, a 47-year-old writer based in San José, told The Guardian back in March, “If the Chinese give, they expect something in return. We are close to agreeing a free trade deal with China, and this is nothing but a sweetener. Also, China violates human rights, whilst we defend human rights, so it is very important to China’s image to show they have a country like us on their side.”
The next time Xavi or Neymar puts on a show at Estadio Nacional, it will be courtesy of the Chinese government. If the Costa Rican national team qualifies for the World Cup, the Chinese government will be able to claim a degree of responsibility for the team’s success. When Costa Rica succeeds, China succeeds. This is what Oscar Arias sacrificed; this is Costa Rica’s burden.
Eric Beard is the founder and editor of afootballreport.com