Deportivo Saprissa's central defender Ronald González knows what it is like to play on the world stage. One of his most prized memories is the consolation goal he scored for Costa Rica against the former Czechoslovakia in their last-16 clash at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy. It was his country's first appearance at the finals, and they created quite a stir by finishing second to Brazil in a group that also contained Sweden and Scotland - and reaching the knockout stages.
After this Thursday, the veteran Tico player could well have another historic tale to tell his future grandchildren. González's Saprissa side go head to head with Liverpool for a place in the final of the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup Japan 2005. "The game against the Reds is the most important one of our lives. We're proud to be taking on the European champions with all their international stars," Ronald told FIFA.com.
It has been a case of so far so good for the CONCACAF champions, whose primary goal in Japan was to reach the semi-finals. Looking ahead to Thursday's clash at the Yokohama Stadium, the 'Purple Monster' are enthusiastic and hopeful, yet under no illusion about the difficulty of the task ahead. "We're a bit concerned about how well they (Liverpool) are playing. They have a more constant rhythm of play because of the type of tournaments they compete in. In Costa Rica the game is less physical and played at a slower tempo," the defender said.
Nevertheless, the player is clear about what his team need to do to have a chance of winning. "For us, the key to this game will be to keep our shape and discipline and survive the initial onslaught. If we can do that, then we can show them what we're made of. The pace of our front men could cause them a few problems, although Liverpool's defence is not exactly sluggish. Order, pace and concentration are what we'll need when we face the Reds," González states.
Nowhere will this concentration be more important than in the defence he will be marshalling. "To be honest, I wouldn't know who to single out from their squad of great footballers. Perhaps Fernando Morientes, a player I've watched a thousand times and someone who is equally effective in the starting line-up or coming off the bench. Then there's Peter Crouch, who, with the benefit of youth and his 2m height, will pose a serious threat. The bottom line is that they're all great players so we'll have to keep a very close eye on all of them," he adds with a smile.
A veteran of a thousand battles during an 18-year career that has taken him to Croatia (Dynamo Zagreb), Austria (Zeller), Mexico (Pachuca) and Guatemala (Comunicaciones), the experienced defender is somewhat reluctant to make a prediction about tomorrow's game. When pressed, however, González says with a grin: "I'll settle for one goal more than they get."
The voice of experience
At 35, Ronald González is rightfully regarded as Saprissa's natural leader and, as such, is more than willing to offer a bit of advice to the younger squad members as the big game approaches. Christian Bolaños, Gabriel Badilla, Saúl Phillips and Randall Azofeifa, who not long ago were hunting his autograph and admiring him from the stands, now share a dressing room with the veteran player and listen to his every word. "I've had to wait 18 years for a game as important as this, whereas they'll experience it at the age of 20. I've told them to live it to the full and savour every moment as the experience will serve them well in the future."
"This is also a great opportunity for them to showcase their talents, because they're all players who could well make it overseas," he adds.
Saprissa have been working hard in the last couple of days to be at their best against Liverpool. In their quarter-final clash against Sydney FC, they struggled to get into the game and looked a shade off the pace. "We were a bit slow off the blocks, perhaps while we tried to figure out how our opponents were going to play things. However, as the minutes ticked by we gradually hit our stride and could have won by a greater margin in the end," says González.
"By the end of the game, Sydney's attacks were mainly speculative balls into the area, which became predictable. In contrast, we had their defence on the back foot with the pace of our attackers," the player added. In spite of that, the Saprissa front men failed to make the most of their one-on-ones with the keeper, something Hernán Medford will have to work on if his men are to trouble Pepe Reina and his defence.
"We're making progress. We were three wins away from the title (when we got here), and now we're just two. We still believe we can achieve something great here," vows Ronald, who feels that their quarter-final game served to help his side find the form and rhythm demanded by the competition.
Satisfied at having achieved their first goal here in the Far East, the Costa Rican players have also had some time to get to know their host country. "This is my third visit to Japan, and I love playing football here as the people are so enthusiastic about the game," said the defender. "We've had the chance to visit Kyoto, and our guide explained to us some fascinating things about Japanese culture. It couldn't be more different to Costa Rica…"
Ronald González had toyed with the idea of hanging up his boots after the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup Japan 2005 to put his immense knowledge of the game to use as a player representative. However, with his passion for the game undiminished and offers on the table to keep playing, we could well be seeing a bit more of Ronald González. For now, though, the player says it is all about Liverpool and trying to stop the mighty Reds in their tracks.