Bryan Ruiz couldn’t stop smiling. It had been hours since he and his Costa Rican team-mates beat Greece, winning a shoot-out to book their place in the quarter-finals of a FIFA World Cup™. But the tall, lean playmaker still beamed, a smiling, bright-eyed glow born of pride and disbelief.
“Maybe in a few months this will all sink in, but for right now we’re just trying to enjoy what we’re living,” 28-year-old Ruiz, the team’s elegant creator and kind-hearted captain, told FIFA.com in the brightly-lit tunnels of the Arena Pernambuco in Recife. The north-eastern Brazilian city is now firmly cemented in the legend and lore of Costa Rican football, the site of a pair of famous wins over Italy and Greece.
“I was really dead,” Ruiz said about the last ten minutes of extra-time against the Greeks. He was overcome with cramps on a hot and damp night, after his team had been under siege and played a man down for nearly an hour. “My calves, my thighs. I had cramps everywhere. The Costa Ricans dug even deeper to cover for their leader and schemer. Ruiz’s team-mates threw themselves into every tackle. “They just kept running and the work they did was incredible,” said Ruiz, his mates marching around the halls, looking for someone to hug.*
Los Ticos* arrived in Brazil tipped for a swift group-stage exit, drawn against Uruguay, England and Italy. But the Central Americans shocked the watching world. They won their group and they’ve inspired with an underdog charge to the last-eight, reaching farther than any Costa Rican side in history.
Now they face another daunting task in the all-conquering Dutch, a familiar opponent for Ruiz. The No10 burst to prominence with FC Twente in the tiny Dutch city of Enschede, and he played the last six months for PSV Eindhoven. “It’s nice to play against a team like Holland, but it’s difficult too,” said Ruiz, desperately waiting for his mobile phone to charge so he could call home to his mother, his grandpa and grandma, as well as his brothers. “I can’t wait to hear their voices,” he said, his head resting against a white wall.
“I have so many friends in the Netherlands,” he said. “The place was my home for years and I care about its people. But for us it is a dream to play in the quarter-finals."
In particular, Ruiz is looking forward to meeting a friend before the big game in Salvador. “I know Memphis Depay very well because we played together with PSV this season,” he remarked about the young Dutch stand-out performer. “We have a very good understanding when we play together with our club and he’s a nice guy. I’ll say hello in the tunnel, for sure, but after that it’s all business.”
It’s a warning the Dutch should heed. Los Ticos have not come this far just to roll over. They didn’t shrink in the face of the big names they’ve faced so far and their quick-fire counter-attacks can unlock any team. They are chasing more history. They feel the excitement back home and the support inspires them beyond themselves. It’s a sensation both tangible and distant to Costa Rica’s players. “We know we’re doing something so big for the people back home, but maybe we don’t realise the extent of how big just yet.”
The Costa Ricans will be underdogs again when they take on Louis van Gaal’s Dutch, who have scored 12 goals in their four games, knocking out Spain and Mexico so far. The Europeans reached the Final four years ago in South Africa and provide a daunting obstacle, boasting some of the world’s top players. Robben van Persie is playing like a kid again and Arjen Robben is at the top of his game. But the Ticos, with no history or expectation to drag them down, are riding a wave.
“We have nothing to lose,” Ruiz added, a look on his face craving more, craving widersmiles, cravingmore moments to savour forever and whisper about to grandkids not yet born. “We’ve come so far and done so much, but we want more. We want to continue on and see how far this can go.”