Saprissa ready to take on the world
Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa are on the verge of making history. The Tico champions travel to Mexico City this Wednesday for the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup Final against Pumas UMAM. At stake is not only the right to be called confederation champions, but also a place at the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup Japan 2005 in December.
Saprissa coach Hernan Medford, already something of a legendary figure in Central American football, is only too aware of the importance of the match and despite a 2-0 lead from the first leg in San Jose, is refusing to take anything for granted.
Medford, a veteran of the Tico sides that competed in the 1990 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, tells FIFA.com that leading Saprissa to Japan would be "the greatest achievement in the history of Costa Rican football".
In last week's first leg, Saprissa shot down the Mexican double winners with goals from Cristian Bolanos and Gabriel Badilla, a performance that left the coach quietly pleased: "We played quite well, with good tactics as well as football, and the players showed great determination. It was a good result for us".
Medford himself is no stranger to Mexican football after spending seven "great years" there at Pachuca, Leon and Nexaca. He knows only too well that his team can expect an intimidating welcome at the Ciudad Universitaria stadium, yet he is also adamant that Saprissa are going there to win.
"We need to have a smart game-plan and be tactically spot-on. Even though it will be harder than the first game, we'll be trying for another victory," he vows.
Medford, a iconic figure in his homeland after scoring the goal against Sweden that put the Ticos into the second round at Italia 90, feels that the stature of their opponents could help to "motivate the players even more".
"I have the utmost respect for Pumas. They're Mexican bi-champions and they deserve full credit. But we have some great players here, not only veterans of this competition, but also of the World Cup and the Copa America. They are used to this type of game," he adds.
The final has set up another fascinating duel between the former Tico sharpshooter and his Mexican counterpart Hugo Sanchez, who he refers to as a "world-famous character".
"He was a great player and now he's become a great coach," he says respectfully.
As fate would have it, the Costa Rican club is also owned by a Mexican. Jorge Vergara, also owner of Guadalajara side Chivas Rayadas, bought Saprissa two years ago. Medford states that his relationship with his Mexican boss is very good and that "he gives the team a lot of confidence". Vergara's arrival at the club coincided with a turnaround in fortunes that now sees Saprissa as the leading team in Costa Rican football. The coach adds that Vergara "comes to our games to support us when he can".
Chivas, Vergara's other side, lost the final of the 2004 Mexican Apertura against Sanchez's men at the Pumas stadium. This Wednesday, the Costa Rican club president will be hoping to exact revenge on the very same ground. Such was his confidence after Saprissa's first leg victory last week, that he declared he had already booked his flight to Japan.
Hernan Medford, who rounded off a magnificent international career with Costa Rica at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan™, knows that if his side can overcome one final hurdle, he will have another chance to make history in the Far East. This time the prize at stake will be the chance to go head to head with the world's finest club teams in Japan. For Saprissa, these are heady days indeed.