There can be no denying that youth football in Costa Rica has made notable progress in recent years. Indeed, this phenomenon is underlined by their U-20 side reaching the final at the last two editions of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, lifting the trophy in 2009 and coming second in 2011 to establish themselves as a force at the competition once more. Their FIFA U-20 World Cup story began back at Saudi Arabia 1989, where Los Ticos exited after the first round, and they would not make the knockout stages until ten years later in Nigeria, when their campaign was cut short in the Round of 16 by Ghana. Costa Rica’s best performance came a further decade later at Egypt 2009. Having finished third in their group, they eliminated the host nation then the United Arab Emirates to reach the semi-finals, where they narrowly lost 1-0 against Brazil, before going down on penalties to Hungary in the match for third place.
Though regional heavyweights Mexico prevented Costa Rica from holding onto their CONCACAF crown at Guatemala 2011, Los Ticos did prove themselves a close-knit and tactically adaptable squad, which qualified for this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia with some ease. Under the guidance of coach Ronald Gonzalez, Costa Rica secured 3-0 wins over Guadeloupe and Canada before booking their passage to the global showpiece with a 6-1 quarter-final thrashing of Cuba. After edging out hosts Guatemala 2-1 in the last four, their victorious streak ended with a 3-1 final defeat by El Tri, though their overall record of four wins and one loss from five games is undoubtedly positive. Catching the eye in particular was the team’s attacking prowess, with Gonzalez’s charges netting 15 goals and conceding just five – of which three came in the final.
As has been their wont in recent years, it was Los Ticos’ speed and creativity going forward that set them apart. A player who has consistently found the net during his rise through the Costa Rican youth national-team ranks, Joel Campbell continued to showcase his finishing ability with a tournament-high six strikes at Guatemala 2011 – thus averaging more than a goal a game. “We have to keep working with him. He’s only a 17-year-old lad but he’s got a spectacular future. If I had the money I’d buy him,” said Costa Rica’s senior coach Ricardo La Volpe, who also took him to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa América. Los Ticos are not a one-dimensional outfit, however, and their willingness to work hard without the ball was also very much in evidence on Guatemalan soil.