It was in September 2013 that Costa Rica finally consigned to history the trauma of missing out on the previous FIFA World Cup™. Eight games into the final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014, Los Ticos had amassed 15 points, sufficient to guarantee them one of CONCACAF’s three automatic berths, and all with two matchdays to spare. A clear case of mission accomplished.
The success was also mirrored on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they found themselves in 31st place the following month. Just one year earlier, by contrast, Jorge Luis Pinto’s charges were ranked a distant 72nd. In the intervening 12 months, results had been overwhelmingly positive, as they claimed the 2013 Copa Centroamericana and navigated the region’s World Cup qualifiers with just a solitary defeat. Yet for all that, the best was still to come.
Passion in their veins
The expression pura vida (pure life) has become synonymous with Costa Rica, where it is widely used in greetings and goodbyes, as well as countless other social interactions. The catch-all phrase is a constant reminder of the people’s passion for life and joyful demeanour. Interestingly, it is not just used during good times, but also in difficult moments when positivity and a lift may be required.
It was precisely the latter scenario that Los Ticos found themselves in as the World Cup approached, despite many having predicted plain sailing. The year began badly with friendly defeats to Chile (4-0) and Korea Republic (1-0) then got even worse with a serious injury to Bryan Oviedo. The team’s first choice left-back broke both his tibia and fibula in late January and would eventually miss out on Brazil 2014. Costa Rica’s travails were also reflected in the following month’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they slipped back to 35th place.
The Central Americans had little choice but to call upon their renowned determination and passion to get back on track. Pinto’s side looked to be doing just that in a trio of pre-World Cup friendlies, beating Paraguay (2-1), losing to Japan (3-1) and drawing with the Republic of Ireland (1-1) – results that moved them up to 28th on June’s global ladder.
With everything set for their Brazilian adventure, Tico fans got the untimely news that Alvaro Saborio, the team’s top scorer in qualifying with eight goals, had fractured a metatarsal in training and would miss the World Cup.
With no time to feel sorry for himself, Pinto shuffled his pack and opted for a 5-4-1 formation in the Group D opener against Uruguay. Junior Diaz patrolled the entire left flank, providing a raft of crosses for Joel Campbell, while on the right, Oscar Duarte linked up well with midfield maestro Bryan Ruiz. Playing with speed and great mobility, Costa Rica downed a strong Uruguay side 3-1 to rack up their first three points.
Against Italy, it was the turn of Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges to dominate the midfield. With Andrea Pirlo neutralised, the Central Americans were able to defend the lead given them by their skipper Ruiz. They then rounded off the first phase with a scoreless draw against England, in the process topping Group D and progressing to the Round of 16 for only the second time in their history.
Greece provided the next opposition and a tense encounter required penalties to separate the sides. A combination of flawless spot-kicking from the Tico players and Keylor Navas’s save took them into the unchartered waters of the last eight.
There was sense of déjà vu against the Netherlands in the quarter-final, when they also defended well and looked to hit their opponents on the break. And although penalties were once again required, this time Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana failed to score and the dream was over.
With their heads held high, Costa Rica bade farewell to Brazil 2014, the bitter taste of elimination sweetened somewhat by the fact they had made history. It was the culmination of a long journey paved with wonderful triumphs, difficult moments and, above all, pura vida.
As for the numbers game, all those highs and lows produced a happy ending in the form of 16th place on the most recent FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Now they can look to the future, and Russia 2018, with optimism thanks to a generation of young players who have shown their capacity to rewrite the record books and make history.