New-look Ticos aiming high
© AFP

Change is a constant in the world of football. On a daily basis in the global game there are new players making their debuts, established performers enjoying success or enduring failure, and long-serving pros stepping aside to make room for the next generation.

The established wisdom suggests the process of rejuvenating an ageing squad is best approached gradually, with very few sides reaping immediate rewards after wholesale changes. Yet Costa Rica coach Rodrigo Kenton has managed just that, having assembled a youth-packed squad whose talent has so far outweighed any lack of experience.

Illustrating the scale of this shift, only two players remain from the Tricolor's starting eleven in their first match at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ compared with their most recent qualifying encounter for South Africa 2010. The biggest name of this surviving pair is 34-year-old creator-in-chief Walter Centeno, the figurehead of Kenton's young team and a man with appearances at two FIFA World Cup finals under his belt.

The first time I called Brian up he didn't really stand out. But I kept faith in him and once we gave him license to roam he was incredible.
Costa Rica coach Rodrigo Kenton on new star Brian Ruiz

"The coach has given me a leadership role within the squad, and that means I always have to be motivated, very enthusiastic and show a lot of wisdom," The Tico captain told FIFA.com. "There was more experience in previous national teams but we're in a new era now. These are young guys who are doing very well."

Not all of the new faces are young, however, with Centeno's veteran status eclipsed by Freddy Fernandez. Unable to be ignored after superb performances for modest Costa Rican outfit Perez Zeledon, the 35-year-old defender only recently forced his way into the national-team picture. But Centeno and Fernandez aside, none of Costa Rica's starters against El Salvador in April were over the age of 28. Meanwhile Michael Umana, who like Centeno appeared in Germany, is still only 26.

Forward thinking
The Ticos' metamorphosis is particularly evident in midfield, where two bright young things are fast becoming leading men. Charged with the play-making duties is Celso Borges, who does not turn 21 until 27 May, while the other rising star is 23-year-old Brian Ruiz of Belgian club Gent. Indeed, the rangy and elegant Ruiz's performances for club and country have fed rumours he could soon be headed for one of Europe's major leagues.

Though the gifted left-footer had been hailed as the future of Costa Rican football for some time, the confidence placed in him by coach Kenton has played a big part in his progression. "The first time I called Brian up he didn't really stand out," the supremo told FIFA.com, recalling his early days at the Tricolor helm. "But I kept faith in him. Against Haiti I took him to one side and said: 'I know you're a good player and you do too, so go out there and enjoy yourself.' Once we gave him license to roam he was incredible. He scored two goals and we won."

The transitional phase has not been a bed of roses for everyone concerned, however, with Kenton's predecessor Hernan Medford hit hardest by the task of replacing the likes of Jose Porras, Danny Fonseca and Paulo Wanchope. In his thirst for change, the team Medford sent out for his first match on the road to South Africa featured no starters from Germany 2006 and ended in a draw with minnows Granada. Thus began a spiral of poor results which eventually cost the coach his job.

Fortunately for Costa Rican football fans, a combination of talent and hard work has helped turn the situation around. In the final six-team Hexagonal stage of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying, the Ticos are second with six points from three matches and boast an average player age of just 24, excluding 'senior citizens' Fernandez and Centeno. Given this enticing blend of youthful exuberance and wily veterans, can Costa Rica make it three consecutive FIFA World Cup finals appearances at South Africa 2010?