Things are not always easy for Bryan Ruiz, considered by many to be Costa Rica’s most talented export. The soft-footed, mercurial schemer, currently with London side Fulham, is on a rocky road to stardom.
“It was a tough transition to the English Premier League, the best league in the world, with the best players in the world,” Ruiz, 26, told FIFA.com in April, a day before a broken foot brought an early end to his first season in the rough and tumble of the English game.
Nicknamed La Comadreja, or the Weasel, for his slippery dribbling and confounding approach work, Ruiz has not transitioned seamlessly to the physicality and furious pace of English football.
For all of his talent and creativity, he can sometimes settle for a supporting role at Craven Cottage. “I like to have the ball, I like to combine with other players. I’m not greedy; if I see a player in a better position than me, I give him the ball,” said the soft-spoken Costa Rican, slight of frame, at home on either flank or just behind a striker.
Abandoned by his father as a boy, Ruiz grew up in a poor section of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Football became an escape, and he showed promise early.
He won the domestic title and the CONCACAF Champions Cup with hometown club Alajuelense in 2005, the same year he was first called into the national team. Touted as the next big thing in Central America, Ruiz, then 18, was nonetheless left out of the Tico team that went to the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany. “A very difficult moment for me,” he quietly remembered the snub. “A real shock.”
The long, lonely road
That window slammed shut, but another opened later that year. He was offered a contract at Gent, far from home in Belgium. “I didn’t know anything about the club,” Ruiz admitted, laughing. “But I learned a lot there.” With very few Costa Ricans previously going abroad, Ruiz was blazing a lonely trail. In short order he was Gent’s top scorer, captain and fan favourite.
Next stop was the Dutch top flight, and provincial strivers FC Twente in Enschede. “This was definitely the high point of my career,” he said. He scored a league-best 24 goals in his first season in 2010, leading the club to their first Dutch title. “It meant everything to the fans. They appreciated me so much there and everyone knew who I was.”
The next year, Twente were edged by Ajax to the title, Ruiz suffered the personal turmoil of a divorce from his wife and his first real injury, seriously damaging his knee. But his emerging talent was enough to earn a move to England. “I know it wasn’t my best year,” Ruiz admitted about his time so far in London. "But the fans here at Fulham were great to me and I promise them more next season.”
The supporters weren’t the only ones to welcome him with open arms “I had never actually met [Clint] Dempsey before, although we clashed many times with our national teams,” said Ruiz of the American international and Fulham top scorer. “He [Dempsey] came right over to me and introduced himself when I arrived, even using a little broken Spanish to help me feel at home. He is a kind guy.”
The understanding between the CONCACAF pair was immediate and electric. Ruiz’s best moments in a Fulham shirt came from setting up Dempsey, who scored 23 goals last term. “We find each other often,” Ruiz said, and after the Costa Rican set up all three of Dempsey’s goals in an FA Cup game, the striker dragged him in front of the fans to share in the plaudits.
The two will likely meet in the final round of regional qualifying for the next FIFA World Cup. Costa Rica, without the injured Ruiz, made a strong start to their semi-final campaign on the road to Brazil 2014, picking up four points from two games. With their talisman now back, they face giants Mexico twice in early September.
“We’re in a tough group, and Mexico have everything,” Ruiz said, admitting that missing out on the 2006 finals and failing to qualify for South Africa 2010 has left him desperate to reach the 2014 event.
Ruiz was 15, just taking his first steps into the wide world of football, when Costa Rica became the only team ever to beat Mexico in qualifying at their fortress-like Azteca Stadium in 2001. “We play football the right way,” he said of the most recent incarnation of the national team, pointing to up-and-comer Joel Campbell, who has followed in his own footsteps to England and Arsenal, as a player to watch.
“We can’t focus on the negative, of missing out last time,” he said with the conviction of a man accustomed to the sting of adversity. “We just need to get to Brazil.”