First foreign footballers: Costa Rica’s Paulo Wanchope

When Paulo Wanchope arrived on British shores the uninitiated asked whether Costa Ricans even played football, which was a fair question even for the man himself as he could have become a professional basketballer.

Derby acquired Wanchope alongside the more forgettable Mauricio Solis in the spring of 1997. His compatriot would only play 11 games in England – leaving no legacy – while Wanchope made more of an impact in one dribble than during Solis’ entire time in the country.

Even those who trained with him in his early days were unsure how he could play football with his limbs heading in all sort of directions. Luckily for Wanchope, he did not take long to make his mark on the English game and the Premier League. Aided by being able to speak English following two years in America thanks to a basketball scholarship, he was ready to hit the ground running.

For many, a debut away at Manchester United would be seen as a daunting task, but Wanchope was carefree and not influenced by the imposing nature of Old Trafford and the all-conquering side who played there. United were running away with the title in March 1997 while Derby under Jim Smith were heading for gleeful mid-table obscurity; nothing was expected.

Wanchope was a unique talent, but Manchester United were ignorant of his skills so allowed him to casually collect the ball just inside his own half. The striker had little to lose so dribbled into space unopposed with Phil Neville merely watching on until Wanchope was confronted by Gary Pallister 40 yards from the United goal; neither could get near the forward. Wanchope – surprised and possibly confused but filled with confidence – glided by and honed in on the area, getting through two more challenges before dinking the ball beyond an advancing Peter Schmeichel and into the net. The goal made it 2-0 and Derby would eventually miraculously win 3-2 – a great start for Wanchope and his career in England.

It was a bold statement from an unknown quantity. He would never again reach those heights but the goal stands as testament to his not-inconsiderable skills.

There was no surprise Wanchope became a footballer – his dad, Vicente, and two brothers both represented Costa Rica – but to make such an impact in England was beyond his wildest dreams. How QPR must have been kicking themselves after they turned down the chance to sign him despite six goals during a two-week trial.

Manager Jim Smith saw Wanchope as Derby’s prodigal son, hoping to turn him into a world-class striker having paid just £600,000 for the 20-year-old’s services. Only inconsistency held him back as Wanchope drifted in and out of matches. But when he was involved, he could defeat anyone individually, helping Derby to ninth in his first full season leading the line.

But if you wanted to see Wanchope at his best then you also had to accept him at his worst, much to the chagrin of those in the stands. Only nine goals were scored in his second season with the club and Smith was known to be willing to sell. His close acquaintance Harry Redknapp took him to Upton Park for £3.5million but the West Ham fans did not take to their new striker and instead grew annoyed by his inconsistency despite his 15 goals during his one and only season in east London.

A move to Manchester City was hastily arranged in 2000 after the club were promoted back to the Premier League under Joe Royle. At Maine Road he was paired with George Weah, though it was the Costa Rican rather than the former Ballon d’Or winner who made the greater impact as he scored a hat-trick on his home debut – a further sign that Wanchope knew how to endear himself to fans. Sadly, it was a high moment in a season which resulted in relegation as he could not score enough to keep City up.

The arrival of Kevin Keegan at Maine Road brought new life to Wanchope, who scored 12 in his 15 games in the old/new/old First Division in a campaign which saw the club reach 99 points.

Fitness was Wanchope’s main issue during his time in the north west but he will be remembered fondly at the club as he scored the goal against Newcastle which secured their Premier League status in 2003/04. Who knows what might have happened if they’d gone down?

A winding-down came post-City as Spain, Argentina, Japan and America saw glimpses of his ability. He made headlines once again when his spell as Costa Rica manager ended in a fight with a steward.

He will be remembered for being enigmatic, talented and ferocious. If only he had been able to produce all three at the same time…

Will Unwin – follow him on  Twitter