Paris (AFP) – Costa Rican Shirley Cruz never thought she would earn a living from football. But on Thursday she will lead out Paris Saint-Germain for their Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich.
“In Costa Rica football is just a way of getting an education,” she told AFP in the French capital, where PSG fans are haunted by the 6-1 humiliation of the men’s side at Barcelona in the Champions League earlier this month.
“What happens is you go to the United States, attend college for four years (on a sports scholarship), so you can get yourself a decent career at the end of it all.
“I never thought I would end up being paid to play the game.”
Cruz, 31, a national hero back home whose face adorns a postage stamp, is small and slight and looks anything but the midfield dynamo she is for club and country.
But it is what’s inside you that counts, she says.
“I have got the heart of a sports person and you have to to get to this level,” she said, adding with a grin in respect of her muscular physique: “Look at my legs, you can see.”
That heart belongs to Costa Rica, where she learned to play the game and which she hopes to represent in the 2019 World Cup hosted by her adopted country France.
She arrived in France alone, aged 20, after scouts recruited her and offered her a contract to play for Lyon, France’s most successful women’s team.
“It was hard. The Latino heritage means we are family-orientated,” she said.
But there was no looking back, and no regrets.
“I grew as a person and as a player,” she said.
The football scout who brought her to Lyon had spotted her at a youth tournament in Canada and opened her eyes to opportunities in Europe.
“Until that moment I didn’t know professional football existed,” she said.
– Still homesick –
Born in the capital San Jose in a poor part of town, Cruz found herself transplanted to Lyon in 2006, joining a club embarking on the path that would lead them to dominate women’s football in Europe.
It was a good match and before long the midfielder was the fulcrum of the team that won the Champions League in 2011 and 2012.
Paris Saint-Germain, under new and ambitious Qatari ownership seeking European glory for both its men’s and women’s teams, swooped for Cruz the following year.
Now one of the game’s top women players, the PSG captain earns 10,000 euros (£8,500, $11,000) a month. Nothing like the salary of her male counterpart Thiago Silva’s 1.1 million euros a month, but “to be paid for doing what you love, it’s already pretty good,” she said.
In 2015 Cruz was in the PSG team that lost the Champions League final to Frankfurt. She hopes to go one better in 2017. The team start favourites to beat Bayern Munich Thursday in the first leg of the tie in Germany.
Sweden’s Rosengard play Barcelona, Fortuna of Denmark play Manchester City and Wolsburg of Germany meet Lyon in the other quarter-final ties.
Cruz is hungry to crown her PSG career by winning the European title and then bringing down the curtain on her career by leading Costa Rica into the 2019 World Cup in France.
Then she plans to pick up her studies to become a physiotherapist, the profession she chose before realising she could live off football.
And, still homesick after all these years, she plans to reunite with her family and live back home in Costa Rica.
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