In qualifying for Korea 2007, their seventh appearance at a FIFA finals in the youngest age category, Costa Rica have confirmed their status as one of CONCACAF's major forces at junior level. Blessed with some fine individual talents and an attacking style, Manuel Urena's side emerged without too much difficulty from Group B of the regional qualifying rounds to secure their passage to the far east.
Once there the Ticos will be aiming to improve on their quarter-final finish at Peru 2005 and become the first Central American side to reach the last four of a FIFA tournament. That is not to say, of course, that the Costa Ricans do not also have also designs on succeeding arch-rivals Mexico as world champions, the boys in green having surprisingly missed out on a place in Korea.
Costa Rica were drawn in the same qualifying group as the USA, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada, with three places for Korea 2007 at stake. In their opening game against T&T the young Ticos served early notice of their intentions by laying siege to their opponents' goal from the kick-off. The Caribbean side produced some dogged resistance until Diego Brenes finally broke the deadlock on 70 minutes. Jorge Castro added a second to complete the win.
In their next match Manuel Urena's young hopefuls found a tightly packed Canadian defence too tough to crack and had to be content with a disappointing goalless draw. The Costa Ricans quickly bounced back with a hard-fought 1-0 win over tournament hosts Jamaica to secure their place in the finals, Esteban Luna's long-distance rocket separating the two sides. With the pressure off, the Ticos fell 2-1 to fellow qualifiers the USA in their final game, a result that took the Americans to the top of the group.
Manuel Urena is an old hand when it comes youth tournaments. Korea 2007 will be the experienced tactician's second FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, the first of them coming four years ago in Finland, where he took Costa Rica to a historic place in the last eight before a powerful Colombia side edged them 2-0.
A devout believer in team play, Urena is a proponent of traditional Tico-style football, urging his charges to keep the ball on the ground and move it around quickly. A very religious man, he is also a sharp-eyed analyst, and makes a point of studying opposing sides in depth before every game.
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That Costa Rica found qualifying relatively straightforward was largely down to the strike duo formed by Jorge Castro and Diego Brenes. The speedy front pair were on hand whenever their side needed them, unsettling defences with their technique and quick thinking.
The talented Josue Martinez was another forward to catch the eye whenever he came on, and the defence formed by keeper Leonel Moreira, Esteban Luna, the scorer of the goal that secured qualification, and the Smith brothers, Roy and Jordan, provides the side with a solid base.
What they said...
"We're very happy because it was a difficult qualifying tournament. Now we're looking to go as far as we can at the World Cup. Costa Rica deserves it." (Josue Martinez, Costa Rica forward)