Costa Rica coach Ronald Gonzalez turned 41 on Monday 8 August; over half of those years have been spent forging an intriguing and successful path in the world of football. As a player, he was part of the golden generation of Ticos who starred in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ under the wily Bora Milutinovic, a mentor who had a significant influence on his one-time protégé.
And despite being the youngest man in charge of a team at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, Gonzalez is currently preparing to oversee his eleventh match overall at the event, an achievement that would see him enter an illustrious top ten of youth coaches that includes eminent names such as Jose Pekerman, Inaki Saez, Victor Pua and Carlos Queiroz, among others.
But Tuesday’s match is not simply a statistic, because the Central Americans face the might of Colombia, the host nation and one of the main contenders for the U-20 crown. On paper, the clash has an uneven look to it: Los Cafeteros ran away with Group A, collecting nine points out of nine, while the Costa Ricans finished third in Group C, with one victory and two defeats to show for their efforts.
“We’ve achieved our main objective, although we’re certainly not happy with all of the results so far,” remarked Gonzalez to FIFA.com. “Losing heavily twice wasn’t part of our plan; that’s why I was pretty annoyed. But that’s done and dusted now. The group stage is behind us and now we have to take the game to Colombia, because our aim is to get as far as we can,” continued the ex-international defender.
Just how is he going to go about beating the hosts? “Good question!” he exclaimed, adding, “No team’s done it yet, so it’s not going to be a straightforward task. We’ll need to show better organisation, initiative and concentration that we’ve done up to now. We’ll also have to improve on our finishing.”
If any Colombian fans thought that the result of the upcoming Round-of-16 encounter was a foregone conclusion, they may need to revise their opinion come Tuesday night, if Gonzalez’s attitude is anything to go by. He learned many things from Milutinovic, including an ability to envisage defeating any opponent, no matter their calibre.
“21 years ago, Bora told me that a football game is just eleven men against eleven. And I tell my players the same thing: the gaps between teams have narrowed; there’s much more of a level playing field these days. There aren’t really any secrets any more, and it’s very easy to study and gain information on your opponents,” he explained.
To prove that the Serbian strategist’s theory has some credence, it is sufficient to look back at what occurred at the same stage of the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, when Costa Rica, under Gonzalez’s tutelage, took on hosts Egypt in Cairo. Fans, press and media alike predicted a comfortable victory for the home side in the last-16 meeting, but Los Ticos pulled off a fine 2-0 victory and went on to reach the semi-finals.
“We can draw on that experience. Back then, the Colombians got a bit of a shock when they faced us. This time around, we hope to rise to the occasion once again,” said the former Deportivo Saprissa captain.
For those in search of additional signs that an upset might be on the cards, they need look no further than Saudi Arabia 1989, when a Colombia team including Oscar Cordoba, Jorge Bermudez and Ivan Valenciano lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in the group phase. The late winner that day was scored by none other than Ronald Gonzalez.
“Colombia had a great side, but my free kick in the 88th minute was enough to win the game. Can we beat them like that again? Well, it’ll be difficult for me to score this time!” he pointed out, laughing.
“That’s what we’re hoping for, of course, but I also want to remain respectful towards Colombian football and their coach, Eduardo Lara, who’s a real gentleman. They’re no doubt in a better state of mind than us right now, but I hope to pass on my experience to my players so that they can use it to their advantage,” added the Costa Rican tactician.
Victory in the match would constitute an ideal birthday present for Gonzalez, but he also admits that he would derive satisfaction from more basic accomplishments. “As long as they put in the effort and demonstrate what I know they’re capable of, I’ll be pretty pleased,” he concluded.