The Curious Case of Costa Rica

costa rica

Many expected Costa Rica to be the ‘whipping boys’ of a tough Group D in the World Cup, but four games into the tournament, the plucky Central Americans have somehow booked a place in the quarter-finals. What is the secret to their success and how have they proved so many people wrong?

After an agonising failure by to qualify for the last World Cup (Honduras finished above Costa Rica on goal difference, therefore qualifying for South Africa), coach Ricardo La Volpe resigned, leaving the managerial position vacant. They appointed former Colombia boss Jorge Luis Pinto and an unimpressive run followed, as they won just two games in 10. It seems that they got the shocking performances out of their system during this run though, because Costa Rica then proceeded to go on a seven game unbeaten run, even getting a draw against World Cup winners Spain.

Despite this good run, results were still average and inconsistent. In one World Cup qualifier they were superb, beating a strong United States side 3-1. Yet, just three days later, they struggled to a 1-1 draw against Jamaica.  Some mediocrity is understandable, given that most of the Costa Rica team is made up of players from the national league, which is not the greatest standard in the world. In spite of this, they qualified for the World Cup from their CONCACAF group with two games to spare.

Bryan Oviedo's injury whilst playing for Everton was seen as a crushing blow for the Costa Ricans before the tournament
Bryan Oviedo’s injury whilst playing for Everton was seen as a crushing blow for the Costa Ricans before the tournament

In their tournament warm-up fixtures, Costa Rica showed nothing that would make anyone believe they would reach the quarter final stage. Pinto’s men drew against the Republic of Ireland and lost 3-1 against Japan. They also went flew to Brazil without injured players, including Everton’s Bryan Oviedo and all-time third top scorer Alvaro Saborio, who led the line in qualifying, finishing top scorer.

The 14th June arrived, and the Costa Rican team was walking out to face Uruguay, who were arguably the best team in the group. All the talk was about the absence of Luis Suarez and how Uruguay would cope without him. Nobody gave Costa Rica a prayer. The first half went as many expected, with Uruguay controlling the game. They took the lead with a dubious penalty by Edinson Cavani. At half time, despite it not being a vintage performance from the Uruguayans, most people expected them to finish the game off in the second half with their superior firepower.

Yet, on the 54th minute, Costa Rica’s chance arrived. The ball, seemingly going out for a goal kick, was hunted by Cristian Gamboa, the Costa Rican right back. He somehow kept it in, hooked his foot around it and swung the ball into the area, which landed at the feet of the excellent Joel Campbell, who smashed it into the bottom corner to send the five million population into delirium. As they celebrated, you could have forgiven the Costa Rican fans for missing the second goal, as just two minutes later; a free kick was converted by the head of defender Oscar Duarte. It nestled in the bottom corner. With Uruguay now chasing the game, they were leaving gaps and Joel Campbell could use his ability to exploit the gaps. He slipped a perfect ball into the feet of Marco Urena, who put the game to bed with a beautiful finish.

Substitute Marcos Urena's late goal secured a 3-1 win against Uruguay in their opening game
Substitute Marco Urena’s late goal secured a 3-1 win against Uruguay in their opening game

Costa Rica had shocked the world. But do you think they would be content with pulling off just one shock? Within the ensuing 10 days, the Costa Ricans had beaten Italy and grabbed a point against England. Somehow, in the ‘Group of Death’, they had finished very healthily on top. They then faced Greece in the first knockout round. The European nation had got through their group for the first time in their history, scoring just two goals. They scraped through thanks to a 90th minute penalty against Ivory Coast. Would the Costa Rican dream continue?

After 42 minutes, it looked as if the dream would get shattered. Duarte, the hero days before, had been sent off after two yellow cards. They survived until half time, just about. Showing their spirit, the Costa Ricans came out fighting. And in the 52nd minute, they got their reward. Former Fulham man Bryan Ruiz had been excellent in the tournament, and he provided the cool finish to put them in front.

Could they survive the final 38 minutes?

No, they couldn’t. In the 91st minute, the Greeks had a stroke of luck. A rebound fell to Sokratis Papastathopoulos, a natural centre-back playing upfront, who duly applied the finish, to break Costa Rican hearts. The exhausted Central Americans would have to dig in for another 30 minutes. And with seconds left of normal time, goalkeeper Keylor Navas would make sure this would happen by pulling off an incredible save. As extra time began, the Costa Ricans were hanging on for penalties. They were essentially playing with nine men, because Joel Campbell could barely run up front.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas saved the crucial penalty in the shootout against Greece
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas saved the crucial penalty in the shootout against Greece

They somehow made it. Penalties would decide it. They had dug in for half an hour, the defence resolute mostly, and when they were breached, the impressive Keylor Navas would keep the Greeks out. The penalties were nervous, with both sides scoring their first 3. The exhausted Joel Campbell stepped up to take Costa Rica’s fourth penalty. He barely had enough energy to celebrate, as he stuck it away clinically. The experienced Tomas Gekas stepped up for Greece, but the stubborn Navas stuck a golden hand out to somehow push the ball away. This left Costa Rican centre-back Michael Umana to take the penalty that could win the game for his country. The pressure of a nation was on one man’s shoulders. He sent the keeper the wrong way, and the pressure was exchanged for ecstasy. The celebrations were inspiring and stirring.

The Costa Ricans will now face the Dutch on Saturday, and if they can win then it will be an even more remarkable feat than their already incredible achievement. You can’t help but find yourself pulling for them on Saturday. Who really are the ‘whipping boys’ now then?

This piece was written by Kyle Goldsmith, so feedback would be very much appreciated as he also wishes to go into sports journalism as a career. It’s a fantastic piece in my opinion, and any comments would be most welcome!

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