Goalkeeper Keylor Navas is one of Costa Rica's brightest prospects. Displaying a maturity beyond his years, the 22-year-old has gradually built a solid reputation for himself, a reputation that is about to be put to the test. For having just come back from injury, he is now bidding to keep Mexico at bay when the two countries meet at the Estadio Azteca later this month.
Though goalkeepers usually make their debuts at a later stage than outfield players, the old saying "If they're good enough, they're old enough" certainly applies in Navas' case. With his speed, sharp reflexes and safe handling, Navas impressed his coaches at Deportivo Saprissa so much so that he made his first appearance for the club at the age of 18 in a November 2005 league match against Carmelita.
Although the game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw, the debutant made light of his understandable nerves to produce a polished performance. "I did feel a bit anxious," he commented afterwards. "But I have to say I'm pleased with how I played and my team-mates helped me a lot too."
Navas quickly made the Saprissa goalkeeping slot his own and, thanks to a series of solid showings, he forced his way into the Costa Rica squad before he had even turned 20. And although his path to a starting place was barred by the consistently excellent Jose Francisco Porras, the young understudy at least had the opportunity to watch and learn from a master keeper.
Navas was no stranger to the international scene, having travelled to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Finland 2003 and then, just a matter of weeks after making his club debut, forming part of the Saprissa side that finished third at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2005.
So when Porras and second-choice keeper Alvaro Mesen announced their retirements, the way appeared to be open for Navas to claim the number-one slot for the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign. Yet it was the more experienced Ricardo Gonzalez who got the nod for the tie against Grenada, with Gonzalez keeping his place as Los Ticos got their CONCACAF Group 3 campaign under way. The vital clash away to Suriname saw new coach Rodrigo Kenton ring the changes, however, handing the young Saprissa keeper a chance to impress.
Navas repaid the Kenton's faith with an assured performance although an untimely knee injury robbed him of the chance to cement his position, forcing him to miss the opening game of the final six-team group against Honduras. Having now worked his way back to full fitness, the young custodian is ready to make a return, as Saprissa doctor Willi Galvez recently confirmed: "His recovery went well and, God willing, he'll be ready for the Mexico game."
After watching last weekend's derby win over Alajuelense from the bench, Navas is desperate to for another taste of international action and a chance to reprise Costa Rica's famous victory at the Azteca back in 2001. "We're going for another win there, you can be sure of that," he vows. "We are a team of winners and we know we can go out and beat anyone anywhere."
Time will tell whether the latest generation of Ticos can emulate the achievement of Alexandre Guimaraes' side and upset the Mexicans again. Although given Navas' self confidence and his abilities between the posts, there is no reason why lightning cannot strike twice at the Azteca.