When it comes to soccer training and culture, there is a huge difference between Costa Rica and a country such as the United States. In Costa Rica, soccer players (and by that, we mean virtually everyone in the country) grow up learning the game through pick up soccer.
These informal soccer games sprout up on the street, on an empty basketball court, in the family garage…basically anywhere larger than a couple of kitchen tables.
It’s easy to find a pick-up game, or “mejenga” – just walk through most any Costa Rican park on the weekend, and you’ll see one going on. But how do you jump in? Here are some tips:
1. Jumping In
If you see a game shaping up and want to know whether there’s room for you to join, simply walk up to the group and ask, “¿Están completos?” If the answer is “no”, that’s an invitation to jump right in. If the answer is “sí”, that means that it’s a game among friends and they’re not looking for additional players.
2. Who’s The Ref?
You might witness some vigorous discussion in the absence of a ref. If a foul or other infraction is committed, players will just complain; a quick and possibly amicable decision will be reached; and the ball will be given to the team that won the argument.
3. How Many Can Play?
Numbers don’t really matter. A mejenga can be a melee of 15 vs 15 or as few as two-on-two or three-on-three.
4. So…What Are The Rules?
Be aware that there are different kinds of mejenga. Some games, especially when played on a basketball court, don’t use goals. Instead, you score by hitting the pole of the basket with the ball. Other games in limited spaces have no out of bounds – as in hockey, you can dribble behind the goal. A “mejenga loco” has no rules at all, so all fouls are permitted. (This author has no personal experience with a mejenga loco, but it sounds like a very bad idea!)
Even though no ref is around to watch for offsides, it’s not accepted mejenga behavior to hang out on between the posts, waiting to score. If you notice an offender camping out on the goal line, the phrase to use is this: “No sea milpa.”
5. The Most Important Thing
Enjoy! Costa Ricans are famous for their friendliness and love of soccer. They love to take to the field with new friends. If you can’t find a game to join, start your own! All you need is a ball, something to hit it against, and a love of the game.
Now get out there and enjoy your first mejenga!