Despite struggling in his first season in Europe, Bryan Ruiz has gone on to take the Jupiler League by storm. The young Costa Rican is thoroughly enjoying his football at KAA Gent in Belgium and is hoping that a cup final win will be the ideal tonic to send him off to help his country qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. FIFA.com caught up with the mercurial winger.
Grandfather Ruiz must be a proud man. Every week, he follows the fortunes of his prodigy of a grandson on the Internet, before what has become a ritual post-match debrief by phone call. Since the death of Bryan's father when the boy was barely a year old, it is his granddad who has been supporting the widowed mother and her four children.
"When I was seven, he told me that I would have a great career. I caught the football bug from him, and I'm where I am today thanks to him," said the scorer of 11 goals for Gent since his debut on 22 September 2007. Two months was all it took for the former CONCACAF Champions Cup winner (with Deportivo Alajuelense) to convince his new coach Trond Sollied - an advocate of the 4-3-3 - to change to "a formation that suits my style of play, and and one that I really love".
The Costa Rican international had endured a stop-start 12 months at Gent under previous coach Georges Leekens, managing only 16 appearances - and a mere three as a starter - in the 2006-2007 season. And when Sollied arrived, fresh from a successful stint with local rivals FC Bruges, Ruiz played only 29 minutes over the first six matches of this season until everything suddenly slotted into place this autumn.
Having first managed to work his way into the starting eleven, he then topped this off with a goal the following week. Since then, the boy from the village of Alajeluita has started every match save for one at the end of October. "I feel good here, and with Fadiga having joined us I have even more options up front," said the youngster, who extended his contract through to 2011 to make it a joint celebration a few months after the birth of his first child.
'I couldn't believe it'
"It was tough to begin with and I needed to take a lot of new things on board, like the cold weather, the language, a different culture and a different style of football," recalls the winger, who was spotted by a club scout when chasing a place in the Costa Rican squad for the FIFA World Cup 2006. "It's a lot more physical, quick and technical here. Leekens said that I would have to adapt and also that my style didn't suit his. In the end, that spurred me on because it made me train even harder and that made me perform better.
To begin with when they offered me a contract, I couldn't believe it. I thought that they just wanted me over for a trial
and to tell you the truth, I didn't want to since I'd already done that before in the Netherlands. When I knew that it wasn't just for a trial I didn't hesitate for one second," said the Ticos winger, who is often compared with Paulo Wanchope.
The interview is being carried out as he relaxes on the terrace of Gent's training complex, while his wife, who only managed to come over six months after his contract began in summer 2006, tends to their new-born baby. Behind the sunglasses, Ruiz has the look of a happy young man enjoying what his new life has to offer.
Anderlecht and Grenada next up
For Ruiz, the sky is the limit, and his dream is to ply his trade for a big club, preferably in Spain's Primera Liga, though he knows he must take things one step at a time.
"If I could play in the UEFA Cup next season, that would be incredible," says Ruiz, whose reputation is rapidly rising throughout Belgium and indeed the Netherlands. If Gent are to make it into Europe next season, they will have to win the cup final on 18 May against Anderlecht, winners of the 2006 and 2007 Jupiler League titles. This would be the greatest achievement so far in Ruiz's fledgling career, alongside playing for his native Costa Rica.
"I've already had some good performances but I don't yet think I'm established in the [national] team," says Ruiz. "The first time I was called up to play for my country, I was still in Costa Rica, and since I've been in Europe, people are definitely talking about me a lot more. I've made a lot of progress and my reputation has grown, in a positive sense. I'm in regular contact with the fitness coach but the manager hasn't yet come to see me in Belgium."
Nevertheless, Hernan Medford will be counting on Ruiz in the crucial qualifier against Grenada in June. "
We don't know anything about this team but we have almost zero margin for error
. It's true that we haven't been playing that well recently but the qualifiers are yet to get under way," adds Ruiz.
When asked why the number of Costa Ricans playing in Europe is less than ten, even though in his own words only two clubs back home are capable of paying decent wages, he replies laconically that: "Costa Rica is a small country, not many people have heard of us".
Ruiz then looks at his watch, picks up his offspring and politely explains that he has to go, as they are having dinner with friends. Granddad can rest easy - Bryan and family seem to have settled in just fine.