What an incredible evening in Heraklion! While the nightmare scenario came to pass for Portugal, Costa Ricans saw their wildest dreams come true. By winning 4-2, the Ticos consigned their European opponents to an ignominious elimination and qualified for the quarter-finals by virtue of having scored one goal more than Morocco. The result meant that the North Africans' valiant 2-1 triumph over Iraq was in vain. As far as pre-tournament predications are concerned, the script was thrown out of the window and replaced by a tale that barely seems plausible. No matter; Costa Rica can tonight celebrate reaching the quarter-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament for the first time in their history. A date with hot favourites Argentina awaits, and after tonight's heroics the Ticos will surely go into that game believing nothing is beyond them.

Portuguese captain Ricardo Costa had warned Cost Rica prior to the game that his side fully intended to win the match and, sure enough, the Europeans started the stronger. Joao Paulo, who was playing instead of the suspended Bruno Alves, came close to open the scoring after just two minutes but directed his neat header narrowly wide. Five minutes later, Danny collected the ball at the edge of the area and executed a fine half-volley that flashed past goalkeeper Neighel Drummond and grazed the upright on its way wide.

As has become their custom in this tournament, the Costa Ricans did not spring into life until they had been threatened themselves. Their reaction this time was almost instantaneous as, eight minutes in, Carlos Hernandez hit a powerful free-kick from 25 yards that forced goalkeeper Moreira into an impressive two-fisted save.

The match settled into an entertaining rhythm as the Portuguese drove forward and the Costa Ricans began to launch counter-attacks. On the quarter-hour mark, Carlos Martins unleashed a free-kick that deflected off the Costa Rican wall and almost flew straight into the path of Joao Paulo. Rodrigo Kenton's troops were full of running and ideas going forward and were proving particularly penetrative down the right flank, where Roy Mire was wreaking all kinds of havoc. After 16 minutes, he went on a splendid run but saw a succession of crosses scrambled away by the Portuguese defence. Twelve minutes later, the Portuguese defenders again showed their courage by blocking a Jairo Arrieta piledriver, again from the right.

Ironically, it was the Portuguese who were to strike through a counter-attack. After 29 minutes, Danny, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Joao Pinto, shrugged off the attentions of his marker as he charged down the right wing and whipped in a wonderful cross that Porto forward Hugo Almeida steered beautifully into the corner of the net with his head. Having gone 1-0 up without really exhibiting their lavish talent, Portugal seemed comfortable and had found a nice fluid style within the solid tactical shape they had adopted.

 

A crash of bodies in front of goal
(ACTION IMAGES)
Action Iaages
Unfortunately for the Europeans, nothing has been straight-forward for them in this tournament, and just seconds before the break Pablo Brenes produced a piece of magic to rip through the centre of their defence and draw a desperate challenge from Joao Paulo, who duly received his second yellow card and trudged off for an early bath. From the resultant free-kick, the Costa Ricans very nearly drew level, but Moreira again reacted smartly to save.

With a man extra, the CONCACAF representatives tore into their opponents right from the beginning of the second period. Kenton threw on Eric Scott and Alvaro Saborio, who were surprising omissions from the starting line-up. "It was a pre-arranged ploy, of course," explained Kention afterwards. On 48 minutes, Brenes turned on the style down the left flank before firing in a volley that missed by inches. But Costa Rica were not to be denied. Two minutes later, Carlos Hernandez swept in a corner and José Villalobos got to it first to drive the ball into the net for a fine equaliser. Game on. Though over-run at times, Portugal showed they were made of stern stuff by regaining the lead within just four minutes. Jorge Ribeiro was the hero this time, dispatching a magnificent free-kick past the despairing Drummond from 22 yards.

Fifteen minutes of madness
Kenton's men have character too however, and they came storming back. Two minutes after falling behind, they very nearly got on even terms again when Arrieta drew an excellent save from Moreira, and Alvaro Saborio did the same moments later. Six minutes after that, Eric Scott dinked a deft ball through to Saborio, who nodded it back for Brenes, who was distraught to see his shot come back off the post.

The Costa Ricans were to be rewarded for their intense pressure. In the 68th minute, the ubiquitous Brenes pounced on a loose ball in the box, twisted and turned and then tried to toe-poke it home. The hapless Fernando Meira attempted to intervene but succeeded only in turning it past his own goalkeeper and restore parity on the scoreboard. The Ticos were on fire now and less than five minutes later they took the lead. After a quickly-taken corner, Brenes clipped a cross into the six-yard box, where Saborio popped up to head his team's third. "I wouldn't like to say that Brenes was the Man of the Match," insisted Kenton afterwards, "There were 14 players out there who did brilliantly."

Portugal were reeling and with the Cost Ricans scenting blood, a killer goal looked increasingly likely. On 77 minutes, Hernandez rifled in another long-range effort, but the woodwork again came to Portugal's rescue. The Europeans were, of course, aware that they needed to score to progress and they did manage to create a couple of chances, but neither Bosingwa (73') nor Hugo Viana (81') could make the most of them. Then, in the last minute, Costa Rica delivered the fatal blow as Brenes beat the off-side trap to slot the ball past Moreira and make it 4-2. That gave the Ticos exactly the same goal difference as Morocco, but the North Africans miss out because they scored one goal less - and so the Costa Rican fairy-tale continues.

"We did our best to win right up till the end, even after going down to 10 men. My team showed great character," said a disappointed Romao at the end of the match. "But I would like to pay tribute to Costa Rica - they have an outstanding team. Kenton, meanwhile, was delirious with joy, offering thanks to his wife, his players, and all of Costa Rica. "We knew Portugal represented a giant challenge, but we did our homework," he said. "We analysed all aspects of their play and our efforts paid off. We knew exactly what to do in the second half. I am delighted for Costa Rican people everywhere."