Costa Rica - traditional powers in Central America - are undergoing a moment of profound revival, spearheaded in large part by the appointment of Rodrigo Kenton as head coach. The red-clad Ticos moved up six places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from 53rd to 47th in the first month of the New Year, maintaining their position of fourth in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone, behind only USA, Mexico and neighbours Honduras - who they will meet in the region's final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The Costa Ricans, six-time Central American champions, opened their 2009 UNCAF title defence on 23 January against Panama, a 3-0 win thanks to a pair of goals from Andy Furtado. Another win, 3-1 over Guatemala, saw the Ticos assured of a place in the 2009 regional showpiece, the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But after winning by default, when their semi-final against El Salvador in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa was abandoned in the 60th minute, they stumbled. Playing with a vastly under-strength side, the Costa Ricans were unable to beat Panama for a second time, losing out 3-5 on penalties after the match ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
Despite failing to claim their fourth consecutive UNCAF crown, the Ticos are still flying high in the region. With fast-rising foreign-based stars and a crop of veteran domestic players, they are looking a good bet to follow the United States and Mexico into their third straight FIFA World Cup finals on the eve of CONCACAF's final round of qualifying.
Their fine current form is merely the culmination of seven months of improvement for the Central Americans, and a long way indeed from the low-point of pre-qualifying for South Africa 2010 when they drew 2-2 with minnows Grenada. After stumbling into the semi-final round, former boss Hernan Medford was fired and Rodrigo Kenton - a former player with Deportivo Saprissa and a well-respected youth coach - was tapped for the gig.
I knew once the players started to get into a rhythm and started playing good, attacking football, that the fans would come around.
With spirits low and a toxic mood among local media and on the terraces, the new man had his work cut out. "The first thing I had to do was change the attitude in the team," Kenton, who assisted Bora Milutinovic at Costa Rica's first world finals at Italy 1990, told FIFA.com. "I knew once the players started to get into a rhythm and started playing good, attacking football, that the fans would come around."
It turns out he was just the spark the side needed. Allying new foreign-based players with veteran stand-outs, the side looked fresh and new. They won all six of their semi-final group games against El Salvador, Suriname and Haiti, scoring 20 goals and conceding just three. The results were enough to see them comfortably into the final 'hexagonal' round of qualifying for South Africa 2010. And in the seven months since Kenton has taken over the reins, Costa Rica have moved up 32 places in the global ranking.
Kenton also had a bit of inside information to help him in his new job. As Costa Rican Olympic coach in the early 2000s, he has intimate knowledge of a talented, but tragically underused, crop of young players. Austria-based Froylan Ledezma, Junior Diaz and Gabriel Badilla (New England Revolution) are just a few of Kenton's more impressive call-ups. Perhaps his most inspired selection, though, was one Bryan Ruiz of Belgian club side K.A.A Gent, who combines brilliantly with outstanding playmaker Celso Borges, son of former Costa Rica playing and coaching legend Alexandre Guimaraes.
The ever-rising Ticos will be keen to maintain both their fine form and their winning streak, when they host neighbours Honduras at their Saprissa Stadium on 11 February.