The 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ was a tournament remembered more for tactical and defensive discipline than attacking flair. Yet there was one side who managed to add some much-needed colour to proceedings. Given little chance by the experts of making an impression on their first appearance in the competition, unfancied Costa Rica surprised everyone by advancing to the Round of 16.
With the likes of Ronald Gonzalez, Juan Cayasso and Hernan Medford all bringing their skills to bear, Los Ticos were not short on talent. Overshadowing them all, however, was fans favourite Luis Gabelo Conejo, the side's flamboyant moustachioed goalkeeper, who produced a string of excellent performances between the posts during Costa Rica's historic run to the latter stages.
Following his exploits at Italy 1990, the shot-stopper signed for Spanish second division side Albacete, helping them gain promotion to La Liga and then to consolidate their place there. It is now more than a decade since Conejo bowed out at the top after a highly successful career, prompting FIFA.com to go in search of the man himself and discover what he has been up to in the meantime.
The mere mention of the Italian adventure inspires a wistful look on the former keeper's face. "We were rank outsiders going into the tournament and we'd never played in a major competition before," he says, explaining the secret behind their unexpected success. "We were drawn against Brazil, Scotland and Sweden, teams with a much better pedigree than us. But our coach, Bora Milutinovic, was European and very experienced with it and he had a much better idea of how things might turn out. He was also a brilliant motivator, and he told us that you only get one chance to play in a World Cup. He made sure we were up for it."
Costa Rica proved to be the sensations of the tournament, defeating both their European opponents to qualify behind the Brazilians. And as Conejo recalls, fans and reporters alike were stunned by their performances.
"The press were amazed," he says. "They just couldn't believe what was happening with the national team. Everybody thought we were weak and disorganised but we were hungry for success. Getting through to the second round was crazy and it was all very satisfying for me on a personal level. I was named goalkeeper of the tournament and that was a real honour for someone from a small country that didn't have any professional players back then."
Conejo's fairy tale ended on a slightly disappointing note when an injury forced him to sit out the Round of 16 match with Czechoslovakia, who put an end to El Tricolor's spirited run. "It's always been a source of regret for me," he laments. "It's as if you've been studying your whole life and you can't go to the graduation ball with your classmates. Czechoslovakia played a lot of high balls into the box and that was one of my strong points. It was really frustrating because that's how they beat us, just by pumping crosses in."
Following Costa Rica's elimination, Conejo moved to Albacete, where he enjoyed a successful stay, albeit after a difficult start. "I was tricked by an agent. He told me they were a first division side when in actual fact they were a team from the third who had just got promoted to the second. I had offers from Torino, Espanyol, Las Palmas, Valladolid and Logrones but I ended up there. Fortunately we had a great season and got promoted and I then had two unforgettable seasons in the top flight."
Here and now
Since putting on his gloves for the last time, Conejo has been busy passing on his know-how to budding young keepers back home. "I've been working with the Costa Rican FA since I retired and it's my job to coach young keepers and keep an eye on the lads between the ages of 15 and 18."
The former national custodian is enjoying his work so much that he has even turned down several offers to coach club sides. "Yes, that's right. I love being a goalkeeper and though I've done the courses and been an assistant coach at every level with the national teams, it's something I've done only as a supporting role. I can't say I'm genuinely interested in it."
As he goes on to explain, his work with the Tico youth teams has led to the emergence of some talented keepers. "I was goalkeeping coach with the senior squad for squad but I had to cover the youth teams at the same time. With the help of two assistants I set up a structure and thanks to that we've produced the two goalkeepers currently with the national side, Keylor Navas and Daniel Cambronero."
What of a return to Spain, however? Conejo's eyes light up at the prospect. "I've got an offer to work there and it would be really exciting to go to Europe and do all the things I've been doing here in Costa Rica. I love the country too and I follow Albacete whenever I can. It's a big dream of mine."