From Costa Rica with love: Johnny Acosta's journey from the World Cup to East Bengal
As first impressions go, Johnny Acosta says he was more amused than annoyed at his initial glimpse of the chaos of Indian football.
As I-League giants East Bengal's premier signing of the season, Acosta, who had played as a defender for Costa Rica at the 2018 World Cup, was being paraded at a press conference in Kolkata in August but the ceremony hit a hitch. One that they might have been expected to plan for. Acosta is a Spanish speaker but with no translator arranged, the event quickly descended into farce. At one point, East Bengal officials tried to use google translate but that plan too was foiled owing to a lack of internet coverage at the conference room.
"It was pretty funny more than anything," Acosta said on Tuesday (through a translator this time) ahead of the launch of the 2018 edition of the I-League. Jokes apart, Acosta isn't expecting any communication trouble once he's on the pitch.
Having played a few games of the Calcutta League and also having trained with his squad, Acosta says he's adapting well. "It helps that I have two team-mates (Mexican striker Enrique Esqeda and Spanish defender Borja Perez) who speak Spanish so the conversation usually flows smoothly. As for my other team-mates, I'm learning a bit of English and my teammates are learning a few words of Spanish. And of course we all understand the basic words such as left and right," he says.
That language barrier though didn't come as a surprise for Acosta. He had done a bit of research on his own when he first got the offer to play in India. "I first got the call from my manager in July when I was traveling back to my club in Colombia (Rionegro Aguila). I get offers to play around the world but India was still something I hadn't expected," says Acosta.
Unsure what to make of it, he called up a compatriot Alexandre Guimaraes who had coached the Indian Super League side Mumbai City FC for two seasons. "He was very positive about me coming to India. He said the level of football in India is going up every day and that East Bengal was a very big club so I had to come and take part."
The 35-year-old did his own research too. "I googled to see what East Bengal was, what level they played and the kind of fans they had. Also I wanted to experience a different country and a different culture," he says.
East Bengal for their part had good reason to want to sign Acosta, whom they eventually did for an estimated $232,000. Over the course of a seven-year international career, Acosta has earned 71 caps for his country, representing them at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups. In fact, his manager conveyed the offer from East Bengal even as he was making his journey back to South America from Moscow.
Acosta has a tattoo of the World Cup trophy on his left forearm to commemorate what he considers the highlight of his career - competing in two of them. "Every player wants to represent his country at the World Cup and I was lucky to be able to get the chance to do that," he says.
Over the course of those two tournaments, Acosta has had a chance to test his skills against some of the best teams and players in the world. The one he marks out as special though was in Costa Rica's league game at the 2018 World Cup, against Brazil. "Every attacker is difficult to play against because that's why they are there in the team squad. But playing against a player like Neymar is great experience. He is an amazing player and perhaps one of the greatest," says Acosta.
Acosta will have to come to terms with the fact it's he who will be the star player everyone will have their eyes on during his stint in India. Over the few matches he's played so far, he has slowly gotten a better understanding of the responsibility expected of him.
"India has been pleasant for me so far. I've only played a few matches but the pitches have been good and the fans have been excellent. It would be nice to get to know more of the country but my attention will be on the football. I've come to do a job here and I want to do it well for East Bengal."