Having kicked off their Group E campaign at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 with an emphatic 5-0 humbling by Brazil, few observers would have predicted anything other than a first-round exit for CONCACAF champions Costa Rica. Yet just six days later Los Ticos confounded the sceptics by becoming the first side to reach the Round of 16 of the global U-20 showpiece after such a heavy opening defeat.
Even then, coach Ronald Gonzalez's free-flowing outfit was given little hope of overturning hosts Egypt and a partisan 70,000-strong crowd in the last 16, only to shock the home side 2-0 and become the first Costa Rican national team ever to reach the quarter-finals of a FIFA competition.
"Was I surprised (we beat Egypt)? Not at all!" Tico midfielder Diego Estrada told FIFA.com, taking time out from preparations for Saturday's last-eight tie with the United Arab Emirates. "I always had faith in this squad. It's true that the 5-0 loss against Brazil was a heavy blow and we had to really work on our morale afterwards. But we told ourselves to turn the page quickly because we still had two more matches to get back on track. We were gutsy enough to do that and reach the standard we'd aimed for, the one that people saw from us against Egypt."
According to Estrada, the key to that victory over the host nation at the Cairo International Stadium was Costa Rica's relaxed approach. "We knew that the pressure was on them, not us. We enjoyed the challenge of playing in front of all those people: the atmosphere was incredible. With the pressure off we just did our jobs, made the most of our chances and picked up the result we'd been striving for."
"The United Arab Emirates play a similar style (to Egypt). They're quick and disciplined, but they like to keep possession more and can sometimes be a bit too elaborate," continued the gifted No10. "Venezuela made the mistake of giving them a lot of time on the ball and that made them grow in confidence. We need to avoid going behind, break up their possession and be clinical in front of goal."
An intelligent and elusive creator capable of impressive changes of pace, Estrada currently tops his team's assist charts with three so far. "It's true that I've always been known as a goalscorer, but creating goals means more to me. My role is to put a team-mate through on goal, and if I can do that and it helps us win that's enough for me."
It is perhaps this tendency to put the team first that has led to Costa Rica's six goals at Egypt 2009 being scored by six different players. "It's because we create a lot of chances. That means that whether you play up front or in midfield an opportunity will always come your way," explained Estrada, who himself found the net in the 3-2 group reverse against the Czech Republic.
"I'd love to play in a major European league," said a player born in May 1989, an ambition reciprocated by many of the youngsters here on Egyptian soil. "I like the Spanish league best and a team like Sevilla or Valencia would be ideal. I'd also love to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona but you don't have a chance unless you've already proven yourself elsewhere," added Estrada, who made his first-division debut for homeland heavyweights Alajuelense on his 18th birthday.
The attacking midfielder also reaffirmed his determination to "keep making history with Costa Rica", before signing off with a lofty target for the tournament ahead. "Even though we've already achieved something great, we won't be resting on our laurels. We feel like we owe it to ourselves to reach the final, and we're going to fight to do just that."