Costa Rica's Group D hopes hang by a thread as they go into their last match against Portugal. The Ticos know that anything less than a victory will spell the end of the tournament for them. They also know that even a one-goal win may not be good enough, depending on the result in the group's other game. But with just a few hours to go before kick-off in this make-or-break game in Heraklion, the Costa Ricans appear impervious to any pressure.
The possible Group D permutations require a bit of explaining. The Ticos currently lie level with Morocco on one point, while Portugal have three points and Iraq, who are already sure of a quarter-final berth, sit proudly on top with six. Should Costa Rica beat Portugal and Morocco lose to Iraq, Rodrigo Kenton's charges will progress. But if the North Africans win, both they and the Costa Ricans would be on four points and goal difference would be used to separate them.
Kenton is aware of the various scenarios but prefers not to deal in hypotheticals. "Nobody will know who made it through until the last match has ended," he reasoned. "All I can say for sure is that whoever plays better on the day will win the match."
Portugal arrived in Greece with a glittering reputation, and beating them will be a tall order for the CONCACAF representatives. "They have some very talented players who play their club football all over Europe," said Alvaro Saborio. "We'll have to watch them closely but we've no reason to be overawed or to fear them."
Saborio put his finger on the area where the Costa Ricans have gone wrong so far. Against both Morocco and Iraq, they appeared to pay their opponents too much respect and failed to get into any rhythm of their own. The Central Americans allowed the other team to dictate the tempo and only began to assert themselves when already trailing or being dominated. When they did get going, however, they showed that they have dangerous attacking potential, notably thanks to the pace of Erik Scott and Junior Diaz. With goals a priority against Portugal, they will simply have to adopt a more adventurous approach from the start rather than waiting until it is too late.
A mind-altering attitude
Whayne Wilson, at 28 the only player in the Costa Rican squad with a significant amount of experience, reckons he and his team-mates need to radically alter their mind-set. "We have to convince ourselves that we have enough quality to go on the offensive right from the kick-off," he declares. "We have to go onto the pitch with a winning attitude. We've tended to wait until we concede before reacting and that simply won't do at this level. We have to play with more confidence."
Watching them laugh and joke in the player's lounge in the Hotel Kapsis in Heraklion as they vote to elect the athletes' representatives on the Olympic Games Commission, one could easily form the impression that the Costa Rican approach is over-casual. Appearances can be deceptive though, and the truth is they are all keenly focused on the task ahead. "When we take on Portugal, we will treat it as a matter of life or death," affirms Michael Umana. "It could be our last match so we cannot afford to look at it any other way."
To accomplish their mission the Costa Ricans will need, of course, to score, and that is something they have yet to do in this tournament. "That is our main problem, we haven't been able to put away the chances that we've had," admits Saborio. "We have to hope we get off the mark against the Portuguese."
Michael Umana echoes this view, and offers an explanation for the team's barren spell in front of goal. "We scored plenty in the qualifiers but without wishing to belittle anyone, the fact is that we are up against a higher class of opponent here," he says. "Playing against Morocco and Iraq is not the same thing as taking on Belize or Guyana. We have to make sure we take our chances. To do that, we've got to talk about what has gone wrong so far and figure out how to improve."
One thing the Costa Ricans know for sure is that their fate is in their own hands. What is more, they believe fate will smile on them, and have been inspired by the most unlikely of success stories from this tournament. "Portugal are a very good team but they can only do what they're allowed to do," points out Kenton. "Everyone thought they would hammer Iraq, but at the end of the day it was the Iraqis who were celebrating."
Can Costa Rican do an Iraq in Heraklion? We will find out in the evening of 18 August.