Few events have had as great an impact on Costa Rican football than the national team's Aztecazo in 2001. Indeed, the history of the sport in the Central American nation is often divided into what went on before and after that memorable match, a game in which coach Alexandre Guimaraes and his charges left an indelible mark on their country's collective consciousness.
The date was 17 June and the venue was Mexico City's mythical Estadio Azteca, where the Mexicans had never lost a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier. Fourteen Los Ticos players were determined to end that run, however, and put on a display packed with quality and fighting spirit to topple El Gigante de la CONCACAF (The CONCACAF Giant) on their home turf.
17 June 2001, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
Mexico 1-2 Costa Rica
Scorers: Jose Manuel Abundis 6 (MEX); Rolando Fonseca 72, Hernan Medford 87 (CRC)
Mexico: Oswaldo Sanchez; Pavel Pardo, Claudio Suarez, Duilio Davino, Salvador Carmona; Marco Antonio Ruiz, Joaquin Del Olmo (Francisco Palencia 75), Victor Ruiz, Miguel Zepeda (Cesareo Victorino 52); Jose Manuel Abundis (Daniel Osorno 68), Luis Hernandez.
Coach: Enrique Meza
Costa Rica: Erick Lonnis; Jervis Drummond, Luis Marin, Reynaldo Parks, Carlos Castro (William Sunsing 59), Gilberto Martinez; Wilmer Lopez, Mauricio Solis, Rodrigo Cordero (Rolando Fonseca '41), Steven Bryce; Paulo Cesar Wanchope (Hernan Medford '81).
Coach: Alexandre Guimaraes
Costa Rica travelled to the Mexican capital with a great deal to gain and very little to lose. Guimaraes' side had kicked off the final phase of their qualifying campaign with a home draw against Honduras, an away defeat by USA and a victory over Trinidad and Tobago. After such an unspectacular start, nobody expected Los Ticos to win in the Azteca.
The pressure was, therefore, firmly on Mexico coach Enrique Meza and his troops. El Tri were, at that time, suffering a run of poor results, having lost all three of their games at the FIFA Confederations Cup Korea/Japan 2001 and got off to a mixed start in the final round of qualifying for the following year's FIFA World Cup. Indeed, an away loss to USA was followed up by an emphatic home win over Jamaica, before the Mexicans stumbled to a 1-1 draw on their visit to Trinidad and Tobago.
Thus the two sides went into the match level on points, but Mexico's formidable home record ensured the odds were overwhelmingly in their favour.
For the first time in many years, the allure of this classic CONCACAF meeting proved insufficient to fill the vast capital arena. With local fans decidedly underwhelmed by their national team's recent displays, the stadium also known as the Coloso de Santa Ursula was only half full, a factor that played into the hands of the visiting Costa Ricans.
The home side could not have enjoyed a better start, however, with forward Jose Manuel Abundis breaking the deadlock on just six minutes from a pinpoint cross by Victor Ruiz. Costa Rica were visibly shaken, though a second goal eluded their opponents despite their near-total first-half dominance.
Aware that something needed to be done, Guimaraes astutely replaced Rodrigo Cordero with Rolando Fonseca just minutes before the interval - a switch that turned the game on its head. The gifted midfielder went on to run the home defence ragged, and grabbed his side's equaliser on 72 minutes after a pass from fellow substitute William Sunsing.
The goal sent the Mexicans into disarray. Costa Rica, sensing the opportunity to make history, flooded forward in search of a winner. Once more the tactical savvy of their Brazilian-born strategist would prove decisive, with Guimaraes choosing to withdraw star striker Paulo Wanchope in favour of veteran Hernan Medford, a man with vast experience in Mexican football. And within six minutes El Pelícano made it 2-1 to the visitors, finding himself in the right place at the right time to score a goal that ensured Costa Rican football fans will never forget 17 June 2001.
Though Hernan Medford will always be remembered as the man who snatched Costa Rica's late winner, there is little doubt that Rolando Fonseca was the catalyst in the famous victory. After joining proceedings in the 41st minute, El Rolo's speed and decision-making revived his side's fortunes. Having scorer the equaliser, it was his shot that Mexico goalkeeper Sanchez failed to hold, allowing Medford to grab the decider. In recognition of his efforts, the newspaper La Nación awarded him a perfect ten in their post-match analysis.
"The only real giant is God. Mexico aren't top dogs anymore," Rolando Fonseca, Costa Rica midfielder.
"A message for all those Costa Ricans who have faith in us: enjoy this moment, because we made history today and we're on the right track," Hernan Medford, Costa Rica forward.
What happened next...
On the back of that victory, Costa Rica went on an impressive run which earned them a first-placed finish in the final six-team qualifying round with a record haul of 23 points. Drawn in an extremely tough group at Korea/Japan 2002, Los Ticos exited the competition on goal difference behind eventual winners Brazil and Turkey, who went on to take third place overall.
Mexico were defeated again in the next match, away to Honduras, a result that cost coach Meza his job. In stepped Javier Aguirre to steady the ship and ensure El Tri's safe passage to Korea/Japan, where they topped a group containing Italy, Croatia and Ecuador before falling to arch-rivals USA in the Round of 16. Since the Aztecazo, Mexico have not lost another competitive match at the Estadio Azteca.