Mark O’Sullivan gives us an insight into the development of Costa Rica’s World Cup 2014 star – Celso Borges. In this fascinating journalistic piece, Mark manages to solidify a pattern of crucial influences and environmental factors that led to Celso’s success. When combined with Celso’s competitive nature and self belief, making it to the international stage seemed to be a certainty.

One of the constants in Costa Rica’s successful 2014 World Cup campaign was Celso Borges. He just always seemed to be there when things were about to happen. He was there on the periphery taking up a position to support a teammate, creating a passing option, distracting defenders with his movement. He was also there to make sure that nothing would happen if the ball was lost. Celso was a constant in a team full of variety.

We will surprise many – although I will not be surprised. We will qualify from our group. – Celso Borges, Quote from 2013, on Costa Rica’s upcoming World Cup Campaign

I first met Celso Borges in October 2013. His then teammate, Henok Goitom, brought him to the Stockholm RCD Espanyol players’ camp I was involved in. Henok is a friend and even though he is still playing, I rate him as one of the best coaches I know. Celso wanted to come along and observe as he also has a keen interest in coaching.

We spoke about Costa Rica’s chances in the World Cup. “We will surprise many – although I will not be surprised. We will qualify from our group” I recall him saying confidently. He took a keen interest in how the young players at the training camp were responding to the game centred sessions that the Spanish coaches had set up.

Clashing with Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani. FIFA World Cup, 2014. Photo: Danilo Borges

Clashing with Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani. FIFA World Cup, 2014. Photo: Danilo Borges

We met again at another Stockholm RCD Espanyol player coaching camp in August 2014. Celso had just returned from a very successful World Cup campaign with Costa Rica where they had indeed surprised a lot of people.

Still with same appetite to learn, he stayed for two hours watching the young players and later discussed coaching ideas and methods with the Spanish coaches, often reflecting on his own childhood and how he learned the game. It was these childhood reflections that made me decide that I needed to interview him. We eventually managed to sit down and talk just before his move from Swedish club AIK to Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna.

“I always felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed.” – Celso Borges, on his attitude towards sports growing up.

We played wherever and whenever we could. Even as a child, the game was all about the experience and connecting the dots. These dots were different game situations, different skills, different social experiences and different sports. Celso’s early learning in sport was not through a staggered textbook process of coach instruction led sessions, but by simply discovering and doing. “I always felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”.

We can divide Celso’s early sporting experiences into two categories.

1. Inclusive sporting experience in an unstructured sporting environment. (street games)

2. Inclusive sporting experience in a more structured sporting environment. Moderate volumes of organised football training plus participation in other sports

Football was in his family. His father Alexandre Guimarães was a professional footballer representing Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup and was Head Coach in the 2002 World Cup. Celso’s early development was based around the simplicity of playing street games. It’s instant gratification and the trial and error involved captured his imagination.

His first contact environment with football was all about autonomy and fun. These defining themes along with social interaction, problem solving and intuition frequently surfaced during my conversation with him. They laid the foundations for what was to come.

Borges for AIK Fotboll, Sweden, 2014. Photo: Anders Henrikson

Borges for AIK Fotboll, Sweden, 2014. Photo: Anders Henrikson

“My earliest memory of playing football was on the streets of Tibas in Costa Rica. It would begin with maybe two
of us playing goal to goal just taking shots at each other and trying to stop each other from scoring. Then others of different ages and abilities, (all motivated by fun) would join in and a game would develop. Basketball was also a big street game. I grew up in the Michael Jordan era. He was a real hero to us”.  All it took was for a Chicago Bulls game to be on TV and afterwards they were out on the street re-enacting the best moves of their hero. Celso and his friends just played, individual ability was never considered important. These games were competitive, challenging and a lot of fun. He and his friends structured “unstructured” games –inventing their own rules and games within games creating their own learning environment. Play was practice.

I would do it all over again

The environment – the streets, the school yards and back yards with their varying surfaces and sizes, manipulated time and space and encouraged the development of more flexible and adaptable skills.

”We played wherever and whenever we could”. Different surfaces demanded different solutions that Celso himself to this day believes helped develop his skills. “We played on cracked concrete. The ball could suddenly come at you at any angle. I got to practice a variety of techniques in lots of different situations. I learned to find quick solutions and you know what? I would do it all over again”.

His early experiences of football seemed to be fresh, fun and novel. The various environments and surfaces with their unpredictability were welcomed challenges. “So many kids today get to play on these perfect artificial pitches”. Celso does have reservations with regard to how many children today experience the game, drilled from cone to cone through repetitive technique and passing exercises. He feels that coaching kids in the early years this way does not necessarily prepare them for the sheer dynamic unpredictability of the game.

No wonder he feels that kids today playing on these perfect pitches since first contact with the sport are missing out on something truly dynamic and exciting.

Perhaps the variety of surfaces he experienced could well be part of the reason why he never focused on the perfect technique. Why should he? The size, surface and layout were far too unpredictable and varied from day to day. Celso’s movement system learned to self-organise and he learned to adapt his movements to various situations. No wonder he feels that kids today playing on these perfect pitches since first contact with the sport are missing out on something truly dynamic and exciting. With necessity being the mother of invention Celso recalls how he and his friends would make a ball from masking tape if their football had been lost. “It was our solution to our problem and it was fun, a lot of fun”. It didn’t roll like a ball it didn’t bounce like a ball, yet another variable for Celso to adjust to. “We often played where cars passed by. It certainly increased our awareness. I guess that many parents today would see this as a problem. To us it was just how it was”.

Beach football in Costa Rica. Photo: Mike Stenhouse

Beach football in Costa Rica. Photo: Mike Stenhouse

Maybe in those days when street soccer was the norm, not only were Celso and his friends aware of oncoming cars, the driver was also aware of the possibility of a street game happening in the neighbourhood. There seemed to be an unwritten contract, an understanding between the driver of the car and the kids playing football on the street. Just like my own childhood in Cork, Ireland, we respected that they had to pass through our environment and they respected our right to the street.

Celso’s early sporting experience was a positive and diverse one. Between the ages of eight and eleven he engaged in a range of activities in different environments. In school, Celso was involved in football, basketball, high jump, baseball and athletics. They used to have these sport festivals between schools. “I tried to compete in as many sports as possible. It was fun. I had a passion for sports in general. I was content with playing nearly any sport. I felt that I had a good chance to improve at anything that I enjoyed”. For the young Celso, play was practice. This intuition, indeed a child’s intuition to associate play, enjoyment and fun with learning, seems to have become lost in many traditional grassroots coaching environments.

“I really felt that I was going to be a footballer, I just didn’t know the route.” – Celso Borges

“My involvement in many sporting activities was very beneficial from a social point of view. I got to move in different social circles. The sports I played were not expensive to take part in therefore they were open to a broad social spectrum. Youth sport is a great chance to make and develop friendships”.

I really felt that I was going to be a footballer – I just didn’t know the route Despite the fact that his parents
didn’t push him in to one particular sport it was never really in doubt which sport Celso would eventually focus on. Celso’s first contact with organised football was when he was 8. The local club would get a bunch of kids together on Saturday just to play a game. “There was minimal coaching – it was all game based”. At the age of 12 he decided to push other sports aside and began to train twice a week with a team. “It felt good to be involved in organised training sessions, I embraced the seriousness, I was ready. Being involved in other sports and the many hours of street games gave me a solid foundation”.

Again, Celso felt that he had a good chance at improving at something that he enjoyed. He recalls a real switch in his attitude on entering high school at 13. “I really felt that I was going to be a footballer, I just didn’t know the route”. Being involved in many sports had taught Celso about responsibility and compromise and this prepared him for the focus and sacrifice that was necessary in his teenage years. “An early positive sporting environment
is so good for youth development. It teaches you values. You find out what you really want. What are you capable of giving up? What sacrifices will you make? Those positive early experiences can help keep you on your path”.

Celso found many similarities in the dynamics between basketball and football especially in reference to how the team had to organise so quickly in response to losing or gaining possession, they are both invasion games that involve transition after all. Athletics helped him on a more personal level. “You need to rely on yourself, goal setting is the same but a bit more personal. However it was football and the nature of the team sport that that was his first love. “Even Rafael Nadal speaks about the bond, that brotherhood that you find in team sports that he misses and cannot experience in tennis”.

“My parents were always a great support to me. They never forced me to play or train football. They always said to me that I should focus on the things that make me happy. I remember when I was 15 my parents once saying to me that I was playing in my comfort zone and I didn’t seem to be showing much enthusiasm or passion for the game. They showed me videos of me playing football when I was a kid – look at the joy they said- ‘you are too comfortable now, look at the joy’”. His parents were right. That same year Celso got cut from the national youth team. It was a devastating blow for him and it hit him very hard. “They said I was not dynamic enough. I could easily have quit but I worked on it. I was determined to prove them wrong. I got great support from my family. They saw how sad I was”.

Borges for AIK Fotboll, 2014. Photo: Anders Henrikson

Borges for AIK Fotboll, 2014.
Photo: Anders Henrikson

Somewhere within the environment of cracked concrete, school, a supportive family and childhood friendships a foundation was built for elite performance. Since he can remember he always felt that he had a winning mentality. When he played on the street of Tibas, Costa Rica with his friends he was always competitive. When he ran in the school athletics festivals he was always competitive. But it never became overwhelming, it was about the process.

In a sport where peak performance cannot be reached until after maturity, Celso benefited from a more holistic approach to development. His early sporting experiences were based on diversification and play. For him play was practice. He always wanted to improve and as long as he was enjoying it, he believed that he would. This built the intrinsic motivation that helped him take control of his development in later years. Celso the young boy became the protagonist of his own learning. “Loads of players that I played with and against had more talent than me but they didn’t want it enough. They didn’t have the drive”. Within that drive was an ability to deal with setbacks and failure.

“A winner is someone who, when he loses gets over it quickly. It is nothing to do with results; it is a mentality”. This mind-set, a growth mind-set, has its roots in his childhood. When we speak of a world-class footballer, we often only refer to or see them as the output or the product of a system as opposed to an emergent, dynamic, nonlinear system. They are the result of all that has gone before. A process of learning an interaction
of experiences where knowledge and skills are organised over time, involving the cooperation of multiple systems at different time scales.

“Loads of players that I played with and against had more talent than me but they didn’t want it enough. They didn’t have the drive” – Celso Borges

The evidence was there for all to see in the performance of England and Costa Rica at the World Cup. How many of England’s ‘stars’ would share Celso’s development experiences in the polished academies of professional clubs? What did Celso develop that England’s finest didn’t? Could it be his mindset, developed by his childhood experiences? Intrinsic motivation breeds accountability, responsibility and self-determination on the pitch.

The performance of these teams can also be viewed as the result of all that has gone before them, each individual’s development story contributing to the team performance. It appears fairly obvious that the variety and unpredictability that Celso experienced in his development as a young player has had a direct impact on his style of play, his ability to adapt at speed and make decisions. Could his talent simply be a result of game based learning in multiple environments over many years? This in turn must make us reflect on how we can give our young players the best chance to experience these variables, which lead to long-term success.

Cover Image:

Borges celebrates after scoring for Costa Rica in the quarter-final penalty shootout with the Netherlands. World Cup, 2014. Photo: Damien Meyer


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Mark O'Sullivan
Mark O'Sullivan
Mark O’Sullivan is a UEFA A licensed coach based in Stockholm, Sweden. Mark works at top Swedish club AIK as coach and player developer. He also delivers coach education courses for the Swedish FA and has run many youth social projects He has his own blog, 'Footblogball' and also works with Espanyol Football a co-operation with La Liga club, RCD Espanyol. Mark is a regular contributor to Player Development Project.
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