Costa Rica star Shirley Cruz has not always worn her hair long. When she was a little girl and had to be looked after by her football-playing older brother, she used to take a pair of scissors to her hair and try to look more like the boys. The reason? So she could join them for a game of football, which was not something girls’ were supposed to do back then.
Times have changed and so has Cruz’s hair, which now tumbles down to below her shoulders. She remains in love with the game, however, having gone on to become the only professional player in a Costa Rica side that she is skippering on the nation’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ debut.
Despite her unique status in the team, Cruz has every admiration for her team-mates, for all the sacrifices they have made to get where they are today, within touching distance of a place in the last 16 of the world finals. Two draws have left them in second place in Group E, with a match against section leaders Brazil to come on Wednesday.
“The dream is still alive,” Cruz told FIFA.com, not once but several times, as if barely believing it herself. “We’ve shown that we haven’t come here to make up the numbers but to compete. We’ve got one final to go and we have to give it our all for the whole 90 minutes. We need to put everything - heart, soul and life - into this game.”
That is the way Las Ticas played their opening two games, coming from behind on both occasions to draw 1-1 with Spain and 2-2 with Korea Republic.
“The key to this team is that we never stop running,” explained Cruz. “We battle for the very last ball till the very last minute.”
Brazil can expect quite a tussle in Moncton then, though as Cruz went on to say, the Costa Ricans have a few things they need to work on before taking on Marta and Co.
“We’ve struggled a bit at times because the team is very young and we get flustered too easily, though that’s only to be expected,” she said. “We can’t compare ourselves to other teams because we haven’t had as much time to prepare and we have less experience on the international stage. We’re doing a lot with what we’ve got, though.”
Ups and downs
Cruz has been through a lot to get to Canada 2015. After having surgery on her right knee at the end of February, the Paris Saint-Germain star worked hard to recover full fitness in time for the end of the domestic season. Despite getting back to her brilliant best, she could not prevent her side from finishing runners-up in the league or falling just short of glory in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
“It’s been a year of emotional highs and lows, a tough season, and I’m feeling tired now,” she said, reflecting on the first half of 2015. “The Spain match was my first full 90 minutes with the team. I’m trying to give all I can and I’m happy with my contribution so far. I’ve been there when I’ve been needed and I hope to be up to the job against Brazil.”
Though Costa Rica’s undoubted star act, Cruz does not feel she has a special status in the team: “This is a family. We qualified for the World Cup as a family and the team doesn’t depend on me but on all of us. We didn’t get those draws just because of me but because we all ran and we all played a part.”
Las Ticas’ on-field leader, the 29-year-old Cruz is a year older than the team’s coach Amelia Valverde, not that she sees that curious fact as a problem: “We’re friends but we’re very professional about what we do.
“I listen to her and I respect her, but she’s got a close relationship with all of us. She knows us well, she was on board for a long time as an assistant coach and she knows how to get the most out of us.”
Cruz added: “We want to make history with her. I think she’s earned respect on the international scene now and I hope she stays in the job because if we’re going to keep on developing we need the experience you get in major tournaments.
“We have a very young team and if the right long-term plans are put in place, it’ll have a big future ahead of it.”
Though Cruz’s knee problems have her contemplating her retirement, she is very much committed to the future of women’s football in Costa Rica and would like nothing more than to see her team-mates leave Canada with offers from the professional game.
She also wants to see a stronger and more competitive national league, more friendlies for the national women’s teams and a more professional set-up, not to mention increased investment and resources.
“I think we’re getting the message across that there a lot of women in this Central American country who can play football very well. I hope this World Cup opens a lot of doors.”
No doubt Cruz is also hoping that Costa Rica’s budding female players never have to resort to getting the scissors out just to get a game.