Keylor Navas, once Levante’s No 2, enters Champions League final as Real Madrid’s undisputed No 1
Three years ago, Keylor Navas was Levante’s second choice goalkeeper.
At the age of 26, he was no callow youth aiming for the top. Instead, the Costa Rican had arrived via second division Albacete, where he had played in a team relegated to the regional third division.
There, after a run of five defeats towards the end of the 2010/11 season, he was dropped to the bench from where he watched his team go down and lost his place in his national team.
Navas’s career was going nowhere, but Albacete’s relegation provided an escape route, for they let almost their entire team of professionals go as they dropped into a largely semi-professional league.
Levante needed a second choice goalkeeper who was not a youth for 2011/12. They were about to play European football for the first time and Navas was told that he would see action in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey if he signed.
Levante did well and played 12 European games as they reached the quarter-final stage. Navas was outstanding in a 1-0 win away at Greek side Olympiakos.
In the Copa del Rey, Levante reached the quarter-finals before being eliminated by Valencia.
In 2012/13, Navas again played second fiddle as he could not displace the Uruguayan Gustavo Munua as first choice.
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Munua, 35, was in form and, sensing he only had one contract left at the top level, pushed for a good one.
His relationship with his coach Juan Ignacio Martinez deteriorated and after a 4-0 home loss to Deportivo followed a 5-1 defeat at Real Madrid, Munua was accused of lacking commitment. There were darker allegations of match fixing.
Levante’s next game, against Barcelona, promised no let up. Navas started only his third top flight game in Spain. High in the stands, his track suited goalkeeping coach Pepe Martinez Puig watched nervously.
“I work with him every day, he wasn’t nervous about tonight,” he said. “He’s playing because Munua won’t sign a new contract. I just hope that he doesn’t concede four or five because it will damage his confidence.”
In the net at the other end was Barcelona’s Victor Valdes, who also had refused to sign a new contract. Valdes was seen as the second best goalkeeper in Spain, Navas was a nobody, but he held out until the 83rd minute when Cesc Fabregas scored the only goal of the game.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Navas said at the time. “You can’t be when you are a goalkeeper. I just thanked God for giving me the opportunity to play in Camp Nou. And everything went well until the end.
“It’s an unusual life when you are a No 2 goalkeeper because you always have to be prepared to play, but you don’t play. Few people can relate to that.
“I’m playing now and I want to establish myself as the No 1 at Levante. My aim is to play for one of the big European teams.”
More importantly, he kept his place in the first team.
The following season, 2013/14, he was Levante’s undisputed No 1, starting 37 of 38 league games, as his side finished a creditable 10th.
Levante conceded just 43 goals, the fifth best defence in Spain. That was not something anyone could anticipate when they lost their opening game 7-0 at Barcelona.
Yet it was Navas’s performances at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago which really raised his profile as Costa Rica, viewed as the weakest team in a group with England, Italy and Uruguay, reached the quarter-finals, where they were eliminated on penalties by the Netherlands.
Real Madrid made their move to sign him as their No 2 to Iker Casillas, which was far better paid than being No 1 at Levante.
Navas played only 11 times and was desperate to join Manchester United at the end of the season, in a deal which would have seen David De Gea joining Madrid.
The move fell through, leaving Navas tearful as he stayed in Spain. Yet it created an opportunity. Madrid had left it so late that they were stuck with Navas, though he had started the season so well that many fans thought that was a bonus.
Navas continued as he had started, cementing himself as Madrid’s No 1 and playing 44 games this season. In three years he has gone from Levante reserve to Madrid No 1, where he has had the best season of his career.
He can cap that with a European Cup in Milan on Saturday night.
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Updated: May 27, 2016 04:00 AM