Debut by new Phoenix midfielder revives memories of Costa Rican club’s tour

By Craig Stephen

When Costa Rican international Youstin Salas took the field for the Wellington Phoenix against Macarthur, it extended a New Zealand connection with his former club that goes back 65 years.

Salas’s debut for the Phoenix revives memories from 1959 when his former club, Deportivo Saprissa, toured New Zealand.

Salas (27), who has been capped six times and was part of Costa Rica’s 2022 World Cup squad, signed a loan deal with the Wellington club in January from Deportivo Saprissa.

READ MORE: Kosta Barbarouses double keeps Phoenix five points clear in men’s A-League >>>>

Youstin Salas … helps extend the historical links between New Zealand and his Costa Rican club.

Back in the 1950s, visits to New Zealand by overseas teams remained a novelty, and the visit of crack side FK Austria in 1957 was one of those occasions when the media and football supporters could feel a sense of true excitement at the talents of a side packed full of Austrian internationalists.

Names such as Leo Baumgartner, Karl Jaros, and Walter Tamandl were all renowned across Europe at the time.

Two years later came Deportivo Saprissa who were as exotic as the name suggests.

They were at the tail-end of an adventurous world tour — the first by any Latin American club — that had taken them from Venezuela to Hong Kong via Europe.

In New Zealand, they were simply called Costa Rica and made the most of their visit with five games.

They had a couple of scares in their first four matches but came up trumps against Waikato (won 2-1), Auckland (4-1), South Island (2-1) and Wellington (6-2),

It was Queen’s Birthday weekend when the Central Americans played Auckland with Prime Minister Walter Nash watching from the stands.

Former Irish international Billy Walsh noted in the magazine simply called Soccer that the Costa Ricans “staged their own ‘fiesta’ at Blandford Park on the same day, and despite adverse weather conditions duly impressed one and all with their neat workmanlike soccer, which arose far above the prevailing mud.”

Saprissa exposed the Auckland defence by utilising two dazzling wingers while goalkeeper Mario Perez made some outstanding saves to keep goal machine John Wrathall at bay.

A week later, Saprissa returned to Auckland to tackle the national team at Carlaw Park, with the home side featuring Wrathall, Ken Armstrong, Arthur Leong and Jim Warrender.

Still, the Costa Ricans were massive favourites with a team full of internationalists of their own, including Alvaro Murillo, the club’s record scorer until the 1970s and who in 1979 was voted Costa Rica’s best-ever player.

They were captained by defender Mario Cordero, who would spend 14 seasons at the club over two spells and was captained by his country 41 times, at a time when there were fewer international tournaments and matches.

And Alex Sanchez was a regular starter for the national team too, gaining a total of 32 caps. This was a seriously talented side which had won three league titles and two cups in the past nine seasons.

Murillo helped his side to a 2-0 lead at half-time with the club’s second strike. But New Zealand were a changed side after the break, with Wrathall scoring two spectacular goals, the first from 30 yards out, the second a long, looping shot which had the goalkeeper scrambling desperately to keep it out.

Irishman Jim Bell grabbed the other goal for a shock 3-2 win.

How they lined up

From the match programme:


Game played on Saturday June 4, 1959

Blandford Park, Auckland

New Zealand 3 
Costa Rica 2 

‘The greatest of disappointments’

The New Zealand Football Association brought Saprissa to New Zealand to showcase a side that played a high calibre of football.

Writing in Soccer after the Auckland province game, NZFA’s official coach and Chelsea legend Ken Armstrong urged junior players to take heed of the Costa Ricans’ style of play.

“Note how the visitors move into different positions to receive the ball and seem quite at home in any area of the field. Most of their defenders would I am sure do a grand job in the forward line.”

The association predicted the national team’s upset win would result in improved levels of confidence and playing standards. Officials also believed that the final tour game could entice international associations to invite the national side to their shores.

But the tour also came with a financial hit.

Despite hopes the tour would pay its own way, this proved to be the “greatest of disappointments” as the NZFA noted in its annual report that the tour incurred a loss of £2,075.

International teams would begin to drift towards New Zealand during the next decade, starting with Tom Finney’s FA XI in 1961.

READ MORE: The 1964 world tour that turned up the heat on and off the pitch >>>>

Craig Stephen

Craig Stephen writes about football for a number of publications, and for RNZ. He is the author of Bombs and Boots, a book that tells how New Zealand football came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

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