In Costa Rica, the phrase “the clásico paralyses the country” may have become something of a cliche, but it is no less true today than it was when Saprissa and Liga Alajuelense first met. With 90 per cent of the nation’s football fans split between Los Morados and Los Manudos, everyday life comes to a standstill when a new instalment of their historic rivalry looms on the horizon.
Having each won the domestic title 29 times, this year the stage is set for one side to establish the sense superiority each so vehemently desires. FIFA.com traces the fixture’s development from its roots to the present day.
Liga Deportiva Alajuelense were founded in 1919 by seven players from Once de Abril who decided to form a new football team. When the game was professionalised two years later, Los Manudos, as they are affectionately known by Alajuela natives, embarked on a journey that has never seen them slip out of the Primera Division.
A modest shoe shop was the location of Saprissa’s founding 16 years later, although the original idea had been to establish a football team for youngsters. Red and blue were chosen as the new club’s colours, but a mistake during the kit’s manufacture led to the dyes being mixed. The result was the purple now traditionally worn by Saprissa, who take their name from their original sponsor Don Ricardo Saprissa.
The young Morados, bold and unimpressed by the reputation of four-time champions Alajuelense, played their soon-to-be rivals for the first time on 12 October 1949 in the old Estadio Nacional. Having lifted both the second and third division titles as undefeated champions, Saprissa arrived in the top flight eager to make their mark at the highest level too. Alajuelense won that maiden fixture 6-5, giving rise to a rivalry that still burns with the same intensity today.
Facts and figures
The teams have met 327 times over the last 63 years. Saprissa have had the upper hand overall, triumphing on 129 occasions and scoring 431 goals in the process. Alajuelense’s 376 goals have helped them win 101 matches, with 98 draws. However, the teams are on level terms when it comes to lifting the domestic title, having each done so 29 times.
Errol Daniels is Los Rojinegros’ top scorer in this fixture with 12 goals, although his tally is bettered by Saprissa’s Evaristo Coronado with 15.
Tales of derbies past
Following the sides’ initial 11-goal thriller, matches have typically been low-scoring, edgy affairs that are nonetheless fascinating spectacles. However, there have also been plenty of action-packed and unbelievably tense encounters that have kept spectators on the edge of their seats and turned the tie into a clásico that captivates fans throughout the country.
Ricardo Saprissa once said that “Saprissa have become so popular that when the team passes through the streets it causes traffic chaos and forces security guards to disperse the groups of people trying to take a look.”
Legend has it that Don Ricardo’s car was once stolen and when the theft was made public the repentant thief returned it with an apologetic note saying: “I didn’t know it was yours.”
By the time the teams faced each other in a final for the first time in 1966, Saprissa had won six titles to Alajuelense’s nine. The latter recorded a 1-0 victory in the first leg, setting up a typically nail-biting encounter in the return fixture. With just five minutes remaining, Saprissa broke the deadlock to level the aggregate score, only for Edgar Nunez’s last-minute strike to hand Alajuelense their tenth championship trophy.
The first time Saprissa beat their rivals in a final was at the end of the 1993/94 campaign, when they won their 19th league title, ending Alajuelense’s run of four successive triumphs.
With the same amount of silverware adorning the teams’ trophy cabinets and equal levels of passion firing them on, the country is divided by a distinctive and passionately drawn line. Nevertheless, one man - Rolando Fonseca - chose to cross it. He hit nine clásico goals for Saprissa and ten for Alajuelense, making him the fixture’s highest ever scorer.
“I’m loved and hated,” said Fonseca. “I was always loyal to the club I was at. I’m also the only player ever to have had two spells at each team. People ask me in the street: ‘Are you more of a Saprissa fan or Alajuelense?’ I have mixed feelings. I’m a Saprissista at heart as I was born and raised there, but Alajuelense were very good to me too.”
More than six decades have passed since the rivalry began and Costa Rican football has been dominated almost every year by one of the two ever since their first meeting. In the 1960s and 70s Saprissa won an astonishing 12 titles but in the 1990s Alajuelense re-established the authority they had enjoyed at the outset of the professional game, taking the league title five times and adding another five between 2000 and 2005.
In recent years victory has alternated between the teams more than ever. Having trailed Saprissa’s trophy haul, Alajuelense caught up with their rivals between 2010 and 2013 to leave both with 29 titles. Who will edge ahead now? The next kick off cannot come soon enough.