Currently riding high in 15th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the memories of their historic performance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ are still gratifyingly fresh for Costa Rica. Yet despite the buoyant mood within Tico football, those at the top of the Costa Rican game are determined not to rest on their laurels.
As they look to start a fresh chapter after their heroics on Brazilian soil, Paulo Cesar Wanchope will be a central figure. Particularly because the former Derby County, West Ham United and Manchester City striker has been charged with coaching his country at the Copa Centroamericana 2014, as well as shaping bright young Tico talents on the road to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio de Janeiro 2016.
On all this and more, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the former international front-man who for three years worked as assistant to his predecessor in the Costa Rica hotseat, Jorge Luis Pinto.
His face wreathed in a broad smile, defender Michael Umana launched himself into a heart-felt hug with goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who seconds earlier had denied Greece’s Theofanis Gekas from the spot to leave Costa Rica one penalty away from reaching the last eight of the World Cup for the first time. The man charged with taking the decisive kick, Umana had just stepped up to fire home and make history for Los Ticos.
“We took a very big step in Brazil. We proved that we’ve got a lot of talent in our game and that even more importantly we’ve got more to give and can continue to grow,” said Wanchope, who scored 45 times for his country’s senior side. “That obliges and motivates us to get the very best from Tico talent. Nowadays, the majority of our players are in European football and that was a key factor too.”
What is more, despite coming within another penalty shoot-out – this time against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals – from improving on what was already their best ever performance at the World Cup, Wanchope insisted their departure from Brazil was by no means tinged with bitterness.
“No, we showed that our standards are improving,” he said. “The quality of teams that this national squad faced over the three-year cycle was very important. Never before had Costa Rica had the opportunity to take on the kind of opponents we did. We played Spain, Argentina… we went over to Europe to play.”
Pinto’s departure from the top job has put the senior national team reins in Wanchope’s hands, albeit on an interim basis, with the most immediate challenge being the defence of their Copa Centroamericana title, a tournament which begins on 3 September.
“Rather than seeing everything we achieved as added pressure, I prefer to see our good campaign as increasing everyone's commitment,” said the 38-year-old. “There’s an even greater sense of commitment towards competing hard, doing things right and behaving in the correct manner both on and off the pitch.”
Wanchope’s plan will be based on evolution rather than revolution, sticking to what has brought Costa Rica so far while tweaking areas that enable the upward curve to continue. “The Costa Rican ethos, our identity, is about fighting hard and getting the best out of every player. That’s what we want to maintain, while improving certain things and bringing in some new touches. We want to keep passing the ball well and maintain the discipline that you should always have.
“In the short term, while they’re working on finding a new senior head coach, I’ll take the side in the Copa Centroamericana and in some upcoming friendly matches,” continued the Heredia-born supremo. “Then I’ll continue to coach the Olympic squad and stay on as assistant to the new senior boss. I’m very excited about the whole cycle with the Olympic squad.”
Indeed, Wanchope is well aware of the importance of his role in keeping Costa Rica in the upper branches of the global football tree. He has no magic formula, instead Wanchope’s philosophy rests on hard work and paying special attention to promising youngsters so that when the time comes for fresh blood to be injected into Los Ticos' senior squad, the players coming through have the character and quality to step up.
“We’ve got good enough players to keep improving, to keep adding to and strengthening the current crop [of senior players]. A lot of those who’ll be part of the Olympic process with me will get chances to play in World Cup qualifiers and, God willing, in Russia [in 2018],” he concluded. “That’s why I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in. There’s so much good material to work with that, allied to hard work and dedication, will only get better.”