Keylor Navas will ruin your dreams.
OK, maybe not yours, specifically. But if your team of choice has a big-time player who you would really like to score, he could ruin that guy's dreams, if he hasn't already. The tiny ( not island) nation of Costa Rica is a World Cup quarterfinalist thanks in part to the performances of Navas, the man whose shootout saves extended Costa Rica's Cinderella run with a win over Greece in the Round of 16.
Perhaps no single player remaining in the World Cup has had such a profound individual impact at weakening established powers of the game in the past year, at frustrating the players, clubs, and fans that are all too used to getting their way. That game against Greece — as well as Los Ticos' three group-stage contests — turned a lot of heads that should have been turned far ahead of time. In fact, the more you study the way things have gone for Navas recently, the more ridiculous it seems that he flew so under the radar into Brazil.
Let's start in La Liga. Navas's team, Levante, are not a good side. The squad finished the 2013/2014 season mired in mid-table, with a pretty pedestrian goals-against record despite the club's emphasis on defensive solidity (an emphasis that is more or less necessary when your club is playing Real Madrid and Barcelona four times per season). Yet Levante were far from a brick wall. The club, and Navas, lost games with scores like 7-0 and 5-1 (both vs. Barcelona). Still, Navas collected La Liga's top goalkeeper award at the end of the season.
Why? Weirdly enough, ask Barcelona. Or, more specifically, ask Lionel Messi.
That flying double save shifted the course of the La Liga title race, and I don't think I'm overstating the case by saying that. Just follow the chain of results.
The score, tied at 1-1 at the time, would be preserved by those downright impossible-seeming saves. That meant Barcelona, who tied 0-0 with Atlético Madrid the game before, dropped points for two games in a row for the first time that season. The Catalans then fell further into a three-way race with Atlético and Real – a battle eventually won by Atléti on the last day of the season...against Barcelona.
Two more points in that game against Levante — points that were perched on Messi's foot before Navas batted them away, twice — would have completely changed the complexion of that final day. Had Navas not made that save and had Barcelona garnered an additional two points, they could have conceivably become champions even if every single other result had gone the same way.
Of course, part of the reason Barcelona would be able to get so close in this (admittedly whacked-out) hypothetical is that Navas did Atlético Madrid dirty, too — a 2-0 Levante win late in the season was backstopped by seven Navas saves.
None of this is to mention his every-week saves off the likes of Xavi Hernández, Karim Benzema, Ivan Rakitić, Diego Costa, and the veritable phalanx of La Liga big shots. In all, Navas made 163 saves over the course of a full season in Spain — more than any other goalkeeper.
Navas's value isn't lost on everyone. "He is to us what Diego Costa is to Atlético Madrid or Carlos Bacca to Sevilla, guys who score 20-plus goals a season," said Joaquín Caparrós, the 2013/2014 Levante manager, to Sid Lowe in the Guardian. "For me, he's the best goalkeeper in the world."
It seems strange that such a standout talent needs such a big shop window like the World Cup to attract potential suitors. One would think these clubs have already done their research. After all, it's not like Navas plays in the Costa Rican league — he can be seen competing against the best in Spain on a weekly basis.
Yet since the World Cup began, big rumors have started to swirl. Why? Because once again, Keylor went about his business of killing dreams.
What's that, Uruguay? You want to start off this World Cup with an easy win against a minnow nation from CONCACAF? Hah!
Oh hi, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli and the rest of Italy. You couldn't get past Navas either. Neither could England. Then, his coup de grâce so far: seven saves against Greece (including this one), plus a stop on Theofanis Gekas's spot kick to push Costa Rica into the last eight against the Dutch.
If you watch enough Navas saves, patterns and tendencies begin to emerge. Of course, the standout qualities are there, as they would be in any top-class goalkeeper: undeniable quickness, superb reaction time, the works. But digging deeper, watching closer, you begin to notice the kinds of saves Navas makes.
He makes an absolutely insane amount of double stops, of which the Messi variant covered above is probably most impressive. He slaps shots off their path with what should have been his fingernail were it not for the gloves. Some of his kick saves aren't even kick saves at all — they just graze the top of his foot, which happens to be perfectly positioned to get the job done.
It would be easy to chalk all of that down to luck. But then you realize that the dude does this stuff every damn game. His saves are a triumph of locked-in concentration, the kind forged by a career away from the spotlight. Navas isn't as rangy as Manuel Neuer or as long-limbed as Thibault Courtois. He doesn't need to be. Those goalkeepers, and their teammates, can reasonably dream of winning whatever trophy they're in contention for. Meanwhile Navas is, to quote another dream-ruiner from fiction, "the fly in the ointment...monkey in the wrench...pain in the ass."
Whether or not he can continue to be that against the Netherlands could decide Saturday's quarterfinal. The Netherlands boast Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, and Arjen Robben — players that have set this World Cup alight with their performances.
But Costa Rica have Navas, who has done the same. Whose semifinal dreams will be ruined?
Alexander Abnos is a journalist and senior editor at Howler Magazine. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork, and other publications. After taking part in the U.S. coverage bubble in the 2014 World Cup, he's now living the freelance/hostel/overnight bus life in Brazil the rest of the way. Follow him and his terrible jokes on Twitter @anabnos.