Costa Rica’s five-week journey into 2014 World Cup glory

When the draw for the 2014 World Cup groups was made on 6 December 2013 at the Costa do Sauípe resort in Brazil, it very quickly looked like the participation of Costa Rica would be brief, and probably pointless – literally. With a population estimated at less than 350,000 at the time, it was one of the smallest countries competing in the global football jamboree, and it had been placed in Group D, alongside three previous winners of the competition, Italy, Uruguay and England.

It’s true to say that Costa Rica had finished in a fairly comfortable second place in their CONCACAF qualifying tournament, four points adrift of the USA, but ahead of Mexico, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica. It would also be the third time out of four tournaments that the Central American state had reached the Finals, although across the previous two tournaments they attended, in Japan and Korea in 2002 and Germany in 2006, they had gone out in the group stages. Qualification of late may not have been too taxing, but the tournament itself, when the major forces of international football joined in, was an entirely different story. And, so it seemed, would be the case in 2014.

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Italy had qualified unbeaten from a group that had included Denmark, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. England had also qualified unbeaten, overcoming challenges from Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland. Uruguay’s journey had been a little different. They had secured the last place from the CONMEBOL confederation after defeating Jordan 5-0 on aggregate in a play-off. They did, however, have the qualifying tournament’s top scorer, Luis Suarez, who had netted 11 times. All in all, most pundits were looking at the group as a three-horse race, with Costa Rica merely being there to guarantee at least one victory for each of the other countries. Such suppositions would prove to be erroneous.

At the head of the Costa Rican squad was manager Jorge Luis Pinto who had secured the Copa Centroamericana for them in 2013. The Colombian was in his second spell at the head of the country’s fortunes having also served a short period in charge in 2004-5, when he again won the Copa Centroamericana with La Sele in 2005. He had also briefly managed his own country in 2007-08. In addition, no less than 17 clubs across South and Central America had put him in the hot seat in his career, never staying for any longer than three years at particular club. He had secured two league titles with clubs in both Peru and Costa Rica, but the exploits of the Costa Rican national side in the 2014 World Cup would be the highlight of his career and lead to him being honoured as the CONCACAF Coach of the Year and Best Colombian Coach of 2014.

The squad Pinto assembled was an eclectic mix, comprising players from North, Central and South America and across a number of European countries, ranging from Spain in the west to Russia in the east. Among the 23 though, there was a smattering of players who not only took some fame into the competition, but also came out of it with greatly enhanced reputations and the possibility of reaping outstanding rewards. In goal was 27-year-old Keylor Navas who, at the time, was playing for Levante in Spain. He had been one of the better goalkeepers in La Liga, but hardly in the top echelon, with clubs eager to offer him a step up to a the top level. That would all change. His performances would lead to Real Madrid paying out his €10 million release clause and giving him a six-year contract at the Bernabéu. Joel Campbell was a 21-year-old, playing very occasionally for Arsenal’s first team, but mainly consigned to the backwaters of their squad. His time at the tournament promoted his chances with the North London club for a while, although in the end, only led to loan spells in Spain and Portugal.

Bryan Ruiz was the skipper of the side and, with more than 60 caps behind him, an established international. He had been enduring a largely subdued period with Fulham, but ahead of the tournament, the West London club had loaned him out to PSV, where he scored five goals in just 14 games. The success he enjoyed in Brazil earned him a move from Craven Cottage to Sporting Lisbon. Others would also prosper from Costa Rica’s remarkable exploits in the tournament. Not many saw it coming, but few would forget the effect little Costa Rica had on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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On 14th June, Costa Rica opened the Group D programme against Uruguay at the Estádio Castelão in Fortaleza, in front of a bumper 58,000 crowd. Going into the tournament, Uruguay’s star striker Luis Suarez had been injured and it was always expected that he would not be fit for the opening game. Given the relative strength of teams however, the loss was considered to be little more than a slight inconvenience. Although the squad’s outstanding player, his absence hardly left Coach Óscar Tabárez bereft of options as he could still pair Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani with the experienced Diego Forlán at the attacking point of his team.

Sure enough, with the game underway, form seemed to be playing out midway through the first half. A Uruguayan free-kick was floated forward, and Júnior Díaz pulled Uruguay skipper Diego Lugano down with a rugby tackle inside the penalty area. German referee Felix Brych had little hesitation before pointing to the spot. Cavani duly converted from twelve yards, slotting low to Keylor’s left. Although the goalkeeper guessed the right way to dive, the accuracy and pace of the shot was too precise for him. Uruguay were ahead and all seemed on track. Although Costa Rica offered enthusiastic endeavour, Uruguay appeared the more accomplished team, and only an athletic save by Navas prevented an effort from Forlán from doubling the deficit. At the break the lead remained intact, but by fifteen minutes into the second period, the game would have turned dramatically.

Pinto had set his team out broadly in a 3-6-1 formation, with wing backs pushed forwards to supplement the four-man midfield and – hopefully – joining in any attacks as the opportunity arose. Joel Campbell was the sole striker. As is often the case in such circumstances though, when facing a more accomplished team, the natural development is for the wing-backs to sink back into the defence, making it a row of five, and leaving the midfield denuded. This had handed the initiative to Uruguay in the first half, but after the restart Costa Rica, perhaps driven on by the need for an equaliser, began to pose some threats of their own.

Less than ten minutes of the second period had elapsed when right wing-back Cristian Gamboa, now offering more of an attacking option, scampered forward reaching the corner flag on the left of the Uruguayan defence. A deep cross into the area caused confusion, and as two defenders challenged for the ball, it fell behind them to a waiting Joel Campbell, who calmly controlled before drilling the equaliser inside the far post.

The goal appeared to disrupt the composure of the Uruguayans and, at the same time, inspired their opponents. A further mere three minutes had elapsed when the turnaround was complete. A free-kick from Christian Bolaños was played into the Uruguay box and, sent forward to supplement the attack. From his usual duty at the back, Óscar Duarte outflanked the Uruguayan defence, arriving outside the widest defender on the far post and stooped low to head inside the far post. Cue euphoric celebrations on the Costa Rican bench as the unlikely now looked distinctly like the possible.

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Tabárez recognised the flow of the play had now changed and took immediate action to address the problem. He removed both Walter Gargano and Forlán, replacing them with a brace of midfielders, Nicolás Lodeiro and the robust Lazio player Álvaro Rafael González in an attempt to wrest the initiative back in his team’s favour. The change, or perhaps the urgency of the matter did deliver a shift in the momentum of the game, as the South Americans were now compelled to push forwards in search of an equaliser.

There was, however, the ever-present danger of a Costa Rican breakaway and a third goal that would deny any potential riposte. Both managers made further changes to enhance their team’s prospects. Costa Rica sank further and further back into defence as Uruguay pressed with incessant zeal, but the breakthrough didn’t come.

With just seven minutes remaining, Pinto played his last card, removing the tired skipper Bryan Ruiz, and replacing him with midfielder, cum striker, Marco Ureña. Up to that moment, the season had been a poor one for Ureña. Now in his third year with Russian club, Kuban Krasnodar, he had played 31 league games for the club without finding the net. In the next sixty seconds though, he would write his name into the history of Costa Rican football.

As yet another Uruguayan attack broke down, Costa Rica sprung forward in an attack. An astute forward pass from Campbell, found Ureña outpacing the tiring Uruguay backline, but driven wide. As goalkeeper, Muslera charged forward to narrow the angle, Ureña adroitly pulled the ball back inside the goalkeeper and, peeling to his right, he watched over his left shoulder as the ball found the back of the net.

The die was now set and there was no way back for Uruguay. It was a sad end to the game for Uruguay, and perhaps indicated more than anything how much they had missed the ability of absent talisman Luis Suarez. When leading by that Cavani penalty, a second goal would surely have precluded any aspirations Costa Rica may have been harbouring of a comeback. The goal didn’t comer however, and as the game swung towards their opponents, there seemed little that La Celeste players could do to wrest back the initiative.

The Costa Rican celebrations were probably still in full swing when England and Italy kicked off their game. It’s unknown whether the players were aware of the score from the earlier game, but any fans of the Three Lions or of the Azzurri would have taken great confidence from one of their supposed main rivals taking a tumble against the minnows of the group. Sagely perhaps, the Costa Rica manager sought to keep his players’ feet firmly on the ground. “It’s an important win for us and it gives us hope, though we haven’t won anything yet” he told journalists.

The other game in the group would see Italy take on the unlikely conquerors of Uruguay. With one win already behind them now, the Italians would have been thinking that a victory over ‘plucky upstarts’ of Costa Rica would put them in pole position for qualification. At the end of the day however, rather than looking forwards, the Italians would be looking over their shoulders instead – and they hadn’t even got the excuse of being denuded of their best player when tumbling to defeat.

The game took place in front of a shade fewer than 41,000 fans at the Itaipava Arena Pernambuco in Recife and, if the Costa Ricans had been hesitant in the first half against Uruguay, they began much less cautiously here.

The first real opportunity of the game came when a corner from the left was played into the Italian area. Uncharacteristically, Gigi Buffon sprang from his goal to intercept, but misjudged the flight. Fortunately, under pressure from a defender, Celso Borges could only head over the bar with the goal unguarded. Italy would respond though, and a header down by Balotelli from a through ball by the peerless Pirlo gave a shooting chance to Thiago Motta, but the midfielder miscued and pulled his shot wide of Navas’s goal.

Italy were now beginning to take charge and Costa Rica had little option but to defend in depth. Next, a through ball saw Balotelli clear and running in on Navas. A lob over the advancing keeper drifted wide of the far post though. It was broadly one-way traffic now, and Pirlo was directing play like an NFL quarter-back. Another exquisite pass put Balotelli in for another chance, but his shot was saved by Navas. Chances were coming for the Azzurri and with each one squandered came the increasing concern that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a price to pay for their profligacy.

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Towards the end of the first-half Costa Rica seemed to have cleared their heads and began to close down on Pirlo. For a while, it cut off a main danger. This lead to more possession for the Central Americans, and a chance to push forwards. A couple of crosses into the box had caused mild concern for Buffon and his defenders, but just ahead of the break, came the key moment of the match.

A half-hearted penalty appeal had just been denied by Chilean referee, Enrique Osses when, out on the left, Júnior Díaz, who would later be acknowledged by FIFA as the ‘quickest player of the tournament’, fired in a cross to the far post. Escaping his marker, Ruiz headed the ball past Buffon via the crossbar and Costa Rica were in the lead against the more illustrious opponents once again.

In the second-half, the Italians pressed forward, but when a shooting opportunity presented itself, they found Keylor Navas to be in outstanding form, comfortably dealing with anything the Azzurri could throw at him. The Costa Rican midfield players even managed to provide some much-needed respite for their defenders by pushing forwards to offer more than a mere token threat at the other end, and by the time the final whistle was sounded, to many, the win had been deserved.

Costa Rica now had six points, and as both Italy and Uruguay had defeated England, it meant that Roy Hodgson’s team were eliminated. It would be the first time since 1958 that they had suffered such ignominy. Worse was to follow though for the beleaguered England manager at the completion of the programme.

All of that mattered little to the jubilant Costa Ricans though who, by dint of beating both Italy and Uruguay were now guaranteed qualification, regardless of what happened in, what amounted to, a play-off between the Italians and Uruguay for the runners-up spot. As things transpired, both of the final two group games, played simultaneously, would be unedifying spectacles.

In a largely dispiriting encounter, firstly Claudio Marchisio was dismissed for the sort of ‘studs-up’ challenge that hardly warrants the description of it being a ‘tackle’. Then Luis Suarez reprised the infamous biting attack as previously visited on opponents whilst wearing the colours of Ajax and Liverpool to achieve the most inauspicious of hat-tricks. By way of a side event, a Diego Godin goal inside the last ten minutes was enough to send the Uruguayans through, and Italy home.

For England’s curtain call game, Hodgson selected a number of players who had, so far, merely been bench-warmers, in what almost amounted to a Karaoke-type team selection. Costa Rica, safe in their qualification, were happy to play out a goalless, soulless draw that saw them top of the group and England anchored to its foot. For one squad it was delirium, above and beyond realistic expectations. For the other it was disappointment and despair, amid a growing realisation of the realistic place the New World Order of football had allocated to them.

As top dogs in the group, Costa Rica had earned a favourable pairing in the Round of Sixteen. Greece had been on the verge of elimination three minutes into injury time in their final group game against Cote d’Ivoire, before a Samaras penalty, earned them a win, reversing things and sending them through in second place. Costa Rica would now face the Greeks, and for the first time in the tournament, they would not only have the advantage of not playing previous champions, they would also arguably be favourites to progress. For the underdog that has had its day, that appellation is often one that fits uneasily, and so it was when Costa Rica returned to Recife to face the Greeks.

Both teams had qualified for the first round of knockout games against expectations, and in what was an absorbing, but ultimately unimpressive first-half, both appeared more intent on protecting that status than seeking to advance their cause. Probably the best chance of the opening 45 minutes fell to Jose Holebas, whose close-range volley was blocked by the legs of Keylor Navas. It would be the herald for a number of important saves by the Costa Rican goalkeeper. The nearest La Sele had come to breaking the deadlock was a shot that cleared the bar from Christian Bolanos. The half-time break was an opportunity for a rethink, and a hope by the watching spectators of better things to come. Both teams had been understandably cautious, not wanting to lose the game before they had a chance to get into it, but now it was time for some positive action.

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It seemed that the Greeks had got the message as they started the second period brightly with Samaras heading a Holebas cross tamely into the arms of Navas. It would be Costa Rica who scored first though. Seven minutes after the break, a pass from Bolanos found Ruiz in space on the edge of the Greece area. Spotting the opportunity, the Costa Rica captain, placed a precise shot into the corner of the net to put his team ahead.

With the momentum now in their favour, and a second goal likely to settle the game, Costa Rica pressed forwards. Their endeavours were nearly rewarded with an opportunity to double their advantage when Greek defender Vasilis Torosidis appeared to handle in the area. Australian referee Ben Williams declined to award the spot-kick though, despite vociferous and impassioned appeals. He would further antagonise the Central Americans shortly afterwards. Duarte fouled Holebas and was shown a second yellow card, dismissing him from the match.

From that point, it was inevitable the Greece would have much of the play, but Costa Rica still carried a threat, although neither goal was seriously imperilled as time ebbed away. Given their last-gasp goal that granted qualification to this stage, Costa Rica should have been wary of any chance of a late goal from Greece. If they were, however, it failed to deliver sufficient caution.

In the first minute of added time, Gekas hit in a shot that the overworked Navas could only parry. The ball fell invitingly to Papastathopoulos – who had never previously scored for his country – inside the area, and, despite scuffing his shot, managed to find a way past the despairing Costa Rican goalkeeper and into the net for another late, late show Greek strike. If somewhat of a ‘Greek tragedy’ for Costa Rica, Hellenic joy was fulsome by comparison. It wasn’t even over then. Navas was once more called into action to save Costa Rica by tipping over a header from Kostas Mitroglou that would have even trumped the comeback against Cote d’Ivoire.

Further chances followed for the Greeks in extra time, as the ten men of Costa Rica gamely chased to cover against superior numbers. Gekas and Katsouranis could have become national heroes, before the best chance of the game arrived deep into the second-half of extra-time. A clearance from a Costa Rican corner found a five-man break faced by a mere two defenders. The chance to strike eventually fell to Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, but he couldn’t raise the Greek chances from the dead, as Navas thwarted his opponents for the umpteenth time, turning the shot around for a corner that came to nought. A last attempt from a Mitroglou volley close in on goal was also saved by the overly impressive Navas and the exploits of their goalkeeper would ensure that a penalty competition would be required to decide qualification. He would also be the decisive factor in the shootout.

As a way of settling such games, penalties always feel somewhat inadequate but, the drama they produce is indisputable, especially at the end of a less than impressive game. As each of the first seven spot kicks were converted, the pressure was ramped up with the next in line becoming more and more vital. When Gekas stepped up to face Navas for eighth attempt the pressure was really on, with any miss likely to prove fatal. In a game of Russian Roulette, despite the odds, the loaded chamber will eventually fall into place. This was the time. The heroic Navas, who had been the vital component in his team’s progress to date, saved the shot and seconds later, Michael Umaña netted for Costa Rica to, unbelievably, take them into the last eight of a World Cup finals tournament. If the game had been less than enthralling, its denouement was massively intense.

The seven teams that entered the quarter-final stage of the tournament, alongside Costa Rica – a plus those that hadn’t made it that far – were testament to the success that Pinto’s squad had achieved. Brazil, Colombia, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Argentina were of the highest quality, and sitting alongside them in the quarter-finals, there by right, was Costa Rica. It had been an incredible journey, and now they were to face the Dutch for a place in the last four. Their run had been largely achieved on the back of their goalkeeper Keylor Navas. In this game, he would again excel, but the fates of the outcome would hinge on a managerial decision concerning an opposing goalkeeper, who hardly played a part in the real action of the game itself.

Previous champions Brazil, Germany and Argentina had already booked their places in the semi-finals when Costa Rica took the field against the Netherlands in the last of the quarter-finals at the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on 5th July in front of more than 50,000 fans to decide who would join them. The Dutch had won all three of their group games, averaging more than three goals per game, and then defeated Mexico 2-1 in the Round of 16. It seemed likely that the outcome of the game would pivot on the confrontation between the Dutch forwards and the Costa Rican defence or, perhaps, Keylor Navas in particular. The Dutch enjoyed 67% of the possession, with 20 shots to their opponent’s 6, and 8 on target compared to a single one for Costa Rica, and 11 corners to 1. That’s precisely how things turned out.

The organisation and passion of Pinto’s side had shone through in their group games and against Greece. It would again serve Costa Rica well as they initially blunted the Dutch attack, disrupting the fluency that had brought them so many goals up to this point. It meant that, as with the game against the Mexicans, van Gaal’s team would need to concentrate hard, and strive long, to find a way through to goal.

The first half was midway through when the first real danger materialised. A Dirk Kuyt cross from the right found Memphis Depay. Cleverly controlling and passing at the same time, the player who would later join his national manager at Manchester United, neatly laid the ball off for Robin van Persie, but Navas performed his party piece again, blocking both the shot and Wesley Sneijder’s follow up. He would repeat the feat later when Depay was put clear by van Persie, with his shot also denied by the Costa Rica goalkeeper.

As the statistics suggest, the Dutch dominated play and any forward thrusts by Costa Rica were rare. Perhaps their best opportunities, predictably, came from deal ball situations. A couple of free-kicks from Bolanos offered a brief glimpse of the Dutch goal. The first was a cross that just passed over the head of Celso Borges. The second, with a better trajectory, Borges managed to reach and head back across goal, but Acosta couldn’t apply the telling touch. At the break, the Dutch were undeniably on top, but the score remained goalless and Navas was proving as big an obstacle to van Gaal’s team, as he had to others before them.

As the second period progressed, the Dutch became increasingly frustrated by their failure to break down the Costa Ricans in open play, and their football deteriorated in commensurate measure, with their best efforts stemming from fouls conceded by the pressured Costa Rican defenders.

Although never a siege, the Dutch pressure was pushing the Costa Rican defence further onto the back foot, with Navas continuing to offer belligerent defiance in the face of insistent pressure. It’s often said that defending, chasing the ball, is more tiring than attacking and being in possession. The truth of that old maxim was being illustrated in the tiring limbs of the Costa Ricans but, inspired by their goalkeeper they continued to resist. Navas turned aside another van Persia effort, and then the same player just fell short of reaching a cross from the persistently prompting Sneijder. Finally, with extra-time seeming like an inevitability, Tejeda managed to deflect a van Persie effort up and onto the bar and away. A further 30 minutes would be required.

Very few would have doubted that the weary, but heroically defiant Costa Rica players would now have settled for a penalty shootout, but the Dutch still had other ideas. Navas denied a Vlaar header, but then, came a Costa Rican sally forwards. A Vlaar challenge on Ureña brought penalty appeals, although they were more in hope than conviction. The same player then forced a full length save from Cillessen in the Dutch goal. A final chance saw Sneijder hit the crossbar, but Navas had won that particular battle and penalties loomed. The big card of the day was still to be played though.

Inside the first minute of injury time, at the end of the second period of extra time, Louis van Gaal called Newcastle United goalkeeper Tim Krul, from the bench, and sent him on to replace Jasper Cillessen. The keeper who had played from the start was clearly not injured, although the lack of faith in him for the imminent penalty shootout, demonstrated by his manager, may well have been a painful and ultimately damaging blow to his self-confidence.

As the players milled around awaiting the shootout to start, there must have been a thought growing amongst the Costa Rica players that if their fate was going to be placed in the hands, both metaphorically and literally, of one of their number, they could opt for no better choice than for that fate to fall to Keylor Navas. Ultimately however, despite his heroic performances in the game, it was not to be his day. The Dutch confidently dispatched their spot kicks and Krul managed to tip the efforts of Ruiz and Ureña around the post. Despite their own number one being a consistent hero, ironically, the fate of Costa Rica’s unexpected but spectacular run in the 2014 World Cup had been decided by the opposition goalkeeper – and a gambling manager.

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It would be a wonderful finale to round off this story by saying that Costa Rica had achieved as much as they had in the 2014 World Cup on the back of some exhilarating, exciting, devil-may-care attacking football. That wasn’t the case. In the group games, against former champions they had defended resolutely, and struck with pace when chances occurred. Later in the knockout phase, it had very much been an exaggeration of those tactics, relying on a resolute defence and a truly outstanding goalkeeper to keep the opposition out, and hoping for a break. That is why the game against Greece was so spectacularly poor. Two teams trying to out-defend each other, came up against opponents determined to be the better at it. In the game against the Dutch, they had little option but to defend in depth. It was a scenario they accepted with practised ease. None of this, however, should detract from the success the tactics brought. The old saying of ‘if it’s so poor, then beat it’ comes to mind, and many couldn’t. Even the Dutch had only put the game to bed in a penalty lottery.

Here was a team, a collection of players, plying their trade in different areas of the globe that came together as a unit to produce a collective will and commitment to their manager’s tactics and, for a country with a less than patchy World Cup pedigree beforehand, it paid off in spades. As in most things, success is a relative term. Germany won the World Cup, but was the joy there any greater than the one experienced in Costa Rica where a five-week journey into glory brought a euphoria of their team making history? Perhaps not. The heart-warming and unexpected journey of Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup Finals will not only live long in the memory, but also give hope to other supposedly ‘smaller’ countries who can assemble a collective will and belligerence, also having a goalkeeper the likes of Keylor Navas would help of course.

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