JAt the Smith, salsa music and a very bad night’s sleep set the scene for the day that would change Paulo Wanchope’s life. Signed from Derby, the unknown Costa Rican was en route to Old Trafford in April 1997 to make his Premier League debut against Manchester United. The striker, just before his youth, was nervous.
“I was very excited before the game,” says the 45-year-old. “Last night I woke up every hour and a half. I did not sleep well. [Smith] understood that I wanted to be relaxed at that time. He understood that music could help me. He asked me on the team bus what kind of music I like. So I put on some salsa.”
It definitely calmed the nerves. Wanchope’s brilliant goal helped Derby to a famous 3-2 win and was later voted best goal in club history. Along with the volleys of Mario Stanic and Danny Rose, it’s one of the big debut goals in the Premier League. Just as it embarrassed Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel that day 25 years ago, it made Wanchope’s lack of sleep and confidence a laughing stock.
The goal would typify Wanchope’s style throughout his career – a mesmerizing blend of limbs, at once graceful and chaotic; choreographed elbows and knees dancing and making their way towards the goal.
Talking to Wanchope over Zoom from his home in Costa Rica, it’s odd to think Wanchope was ever anxious. But life was full of uncertainty before he made the £600,000 move from Herediano to Derby. In fact, Wanchope almost didn’t play football at all.
“I used to do a lot of street sports,” he says. “My mother used to be an athlete. My uncle played baseball. I got the chance to play basketball and played in the US on a high school scholarship. I had the chance to play in college but decided to come back to Costa Rica and start my studies here instead.
“I had to choose between football and basketball, but my passion has always been football. I was called up for the U20 World Cup in Qatar in 1995 and that helped me with my decision. Almost every night we chatted with the Spanish players and I managed to get a shin pad from Raúl. We knew he was going to be great as he had already made his debut for Real Madrid when he was 17. I still have the shin guards somewhere.”
A trial with QPR was agreed. “I played three games and scored six goals but nothing happened. Then I came back to Costa Rica but went back to Derby a month later. People said to me, ‘Why are you going back? If you failed to get into a second rate club [QPR], why do you think you will make it to the Premier League?’ But I told them, ‘I want this.’”
Wanchope made two tryouts at Derby and did not score. Smith noted in his autobiography that Wanchope “missed a few open goals, but we thought he was worth a shot.”
“I was a little worried, but they made the decision to sign me,” Wanchope says. “The derby was a great start to my career in England. Smith was a very strong character and his assistant Steve McClaren was calmer and helped me not only in football but in my whole life. It was a great combination. The food, the rain and the cold were very different, but that was my dream. Playing abroad, with and against the best.”
Wanchope spent two years at Derby, scoring 23 league goals, before joining West Ham for £3.5million in 1999 and joining Manchester City for a similar fee a year later. “West Ham had a lot of good young players, like Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick. As a forward, playing with Paolo Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair was easy. I can’t say the things I saw at John Moncur.
“At Manchester City I had the experience on Maine Road and in the new stadium. Maine Road was a great atmosphere, the field was very close to the stands. But it was the fans that made the experience special. We had some doubts when we moved [the Etihad]. But the support there was something I had never experienced before.”
Wanchope left England in 2004 and had successful spells in Spain, Qatar, Argentina, MLS, Japan and at home in Costa Rica, and her exploits for the national team earned her a place at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Wanchope became his country’s second-best goalscorer before joining Jorge Luis Pinto’s coaching staff at the 2014 World Cup, where Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals for the first time, losing to the Netherlands on penalties.
“It was a great experience to be in the group of death and to be able to survive with England, Italy and Uruguay,” says a smiling Wanchope. “We did a great job there but had talented players: Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell.”
The road after this tournament was a bit bumpy. Pinto resigned, citing “differences with the staff” and stating he had “slept with the enemy for a year and a half”. Wanchope was later promoted to head coach but resigned in 2015 after getting involved in a fight while watching an under-23 game.
“There was an incident,” Wanchope says of Pinto’s resignation. “He explained that I was a problem and the federation didn’t want him to continue with the job. He went insane. I have no explanation. I never spoke to him about it.”
This month, with the U20 Women’s World Cup set to take place in Costa Rica in August, Wanchope has been brought in by Fifa for the draw that sees the hosts face Australia, Spain and Brazil in a difficult Group A.
“In the last 15 to 20 years, women’s football has improved a lot here. To have the privilege of having the World Cup is going to be a great platform for our youngsters, for our girls.”
Wanchope balances ambassadorial duties with coaching ambitions and a move back to England remains a possibility. “I have dual citizenship and as a family we are considering moving back – my daughter is studying there so we are considering coming to her. Football-wise, England is the place to be.”