“We have to continue”: Despite Champions League exit, Christian Bolanos and Saprissa aiming to carry on domestic growth

Saprissa narrowly fell to the Montreal Impact this week, as the Canadian side advanced to the next round of the Concacaf Champions League. After the game, BTS spoke to Saprissa’s Christian Bolanos, as the former Vancouver Whitecaps man shared his thoughts on the game, MLS and pushing forward. 

At 35 years of age, there’s not a lot that Christian Bolanos hasn’t seen in football. 

From coming up the ranks of Saprissa, to moving abroad at 23, embarking on a journey that has seen him kick the ball for teams in places such as Norway, Denmark, Qatar and Canada, before returning home to Saprissa 2 years ago, Bolanos has been around, with the gray hairs in his beard a testament of his experience.

You throw in his 80+ caps for Costa Rica, who he’s represented at 2 World Cups, along with countless other CONCACAF events, and you’ve got quite the complete CV, one that despite his advanced age, he hasn’t quite yet given up on filling. 

And it’s that drive that makes him special, as he continues to put in performances for Saprissa, with a hat trick in his latest Costa Rican league game a prime example of what he can still do. For most players, hitting the other side of 30 means stepping back and taking a leadership role, but for Bolanos, it has been the opposite, and given the results, Saprissa are surely thankful for that.

Even despite having won the Concacaf Champions League before, with Bolanos playing a role in the Saprissa side that became the last non-Mexican winners of the tournament back in 2005, he continues to fight for a shot to lift that coveted trophy once more. 

So while he and his Saprissa fell short of that goal this week, bowing out to the 2015 finalists, the Montreal Impact, by the way of away goals, he put in another strong shift, with he and the fellow attackers only bested by the strong defensive play of the Impact, led by Clement Diop in goal. 

“I think we lost the series in Costa Rica,” Bolanos told BTS in an interview after the game. “So (with that), we have to come here to play a game with them at least one goal in front, but that’s how it is in football.”

“We drew in Costa Rica, so we try everything here, but we didn’t score any of our chances. We created a lot of chances, but we weren’t lucky, so that’s football.”

On another night, maybe that late Mariano Diaz wonder-strike tickles the back of the net, or Bolanos’s subsequent rebound attempt finds it’s way through the defenders, but that’s the sport sometimes, with the margin for error constantly being high in knockout football. 

For someone who’s lifted the trophy, with his play in that 2005 tournament and what is now known as the Club World Cup even earning him a trial at the famed Liverpool, it’s something he’s seen many times before, and it’s something he’s likely to see again. 

So even if you factor in the wonky conditions, as the Impact played the game at the Stade Olympique, which has an artificial surface that leaves a lot to be desired, Bolanos understands that these results happen, especially in an unpredictable CONCACAF landscape. 

“Yeah, that changes everything,” he said of the turf. “But we cannot say because of that we lost, because we created many chances, we played well. So that’s how it is, in football, you have to keep going.”

Result aside, this match was also a good barometer for the Costa Rican league, with Liga MX and MLS sides typically doing quite well in Champions League play, with the clear hierarchy being Liga MX in 1st, MLS in a distant 2nd, and then a jostle between Costa Rica and Honduras for 3rd spot right behind the American circuit.

Given that Bolanos has seen the quality of play in both Costa Rica and MLS, as he also once played 2 years for the Vancouver Whitecaps, helping the Canadian club reach the semi-finals of the 2017 Champions League tournament, he has some good insight on the matter. 

And it’s an interesting subject to study. Despite Costa Rica’s solid performances internationally, as they are usually the 2nd or 3rd best national team in the region in any given year, most of their best players move abroad to cut their teeth professionally. 

While that’s normal for any nation, especially in North America, it’s a surprise they haven’t turned some of that homegrown talent into more success in the Champions League, especially given that 15-year gap since Saprissa’s continental triumph.

MLS and Liga MX sides may have more money, which does make a difference, but given that Costa Rica’s golden generation has come through over the last decade, it’s surprising to see that no team has even made the final since 2008, with the Champions League truly becoming a Mexican (and sometimes Canadian/American) competition. 

But for Bolanos, that comes down to the Costa Rican league improving their coaching, stadiums and other infrastructure, giving the talented players they do have more of a chance to make a difference in tournaments like this one. 

“I think the MLS, as a league, they have everything now,” he said. “So they can improve, the players can be more precise in the games, more tactical, there is more potential, they’re stronger than the Costa Rican players.”

“In Costa Rica, we don’t have the biggest stadiums, we don’t have a good grass for practice, so that’s difficult for Costa Rican players, but that’s how it is. We have a lot of good players, good technical players, you saw the game today, it’s not a lot of difference (between Costa Rica and MLS). That’s how it is, that’s Costa Rican football. I hope in the next years it can become better.”

So who knows, maybe the Costa Rican domestic scene can rise once again, as Bolanos hopefully suggested. Their teams can hang with anyone in the competition, as Wednesday’s results showed, and considering that their rosters are among the ones with the highest percentage of domestic players in the tournament, what they manage to consistently achieve is impressive. 

With revamps of the tournament promised to be on the way, which may provide even more chances for Costa Rican teams (who get no direct entry to the tournament, as they have to pass through the CONCACAF League, unlike MLS and Liga MX teams, who get straight entries into the round of 16), it could lead to more stories like the one of that 2005 Saprissa side, with Bolanos hoping to be along for the ride once again. 

Which fortunately for his teammates and other future Costa Rican participants, he’s continuing to plant the seeds for that to one day happen. While that 2005 run won’t be replicated this year, Saprissa are in the midst of another strong domestic campaign, sitting tied for first with a game in hand in the current Costa Rican Apertura, so don’t be surprised if they’re back again, as soon as next year. 

And given that Bolanos still continues to rack up the goals and assists, with 8 goals in 9 games domestically to start 2020, along with the 1 assist he bagged during the first leg against Montreal, don’t be surprised if he’s still around, either, continuing to lead the way for his side offensively. 

“Yeah, of course, I am so proud of my teammates,” Bolanos said of continuing on. “We weren’t lucky today, we tried to go to the next round, but that’s football, like they say. We put everything on the pitch, but we have to continue.”

Cover Photo by: CONCACAF/MexSport

Special thanks to BTS’s Felix Todd, who conducted the interview.

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