Walter Centeno is unquestionably a standard-bearer in Costa Rican football. The Tico No10 has already appeared at two FIFA World Cup™ finals and is determined to make it three at South Africa 2010. On the morning after his club side Deportivo Saprissa's magnificent win over Mexican giants Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League, the playmaker found time to talk exclusively to FIFA.com.
As the interview gets underway, Centeno makes no attempt to hide his delight about the previous night's result. "I'm pleased about how we worked as a group, and we thoroughly deserved to win that game. We're not yet into the second phase of the tournament but we're going well. I've already experienced a Club World Cup, but now that it's going to be staged in another country (other than Japan) it would be nice to take part again."
An honour to be captain
The conversation then turns to how well Costa Rica are doing in the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa under new coach Rodrigo Kenton. "We've had a very good group stage and are working hard. At the moment things are going well, but now we have to prepare for the Hexagonal (final six-team qualifying group), which is going to be much harder. We have to be meticulous in this respect and avoid any overconfidence," the player says.
After appearing at Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, Centeno has helped the side through the inevitable rebuilding phase as a new generation emerges to try to emulate the likes of Hernan Medford and Paulo Wanchope. So how would he compare the current side with previous ones? "You can't compare them," he says. "The teams of 2002 and 2006 were more experienced, but this is new era now. The current youngsters are enjoying a good spell right now, but this is still their first World Cup qualifying campaign."
Given these circumstances, the burden of responsibility on the team's senior players is greater than ever, and on none more so than their skipper. For Centeno, however, the task of captaining the Tricolor is both a privilege and a delight. "It's a big responsibility, although it's not easy being a figurehead. I've learned a lot during my long career, and I want to use that knowledge to help others on the pitch and later off it as well. Showing my team-mates how to handle a qualifying campaign is nice role to have and a great honour."
A nervy start
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that the qualifying campaign has been all plain sailing for the Ticos, who had to dig deep to even make the initial group phase. Indeed, these early travails cost the previous coach Hernan Medford his job. Centeno ventures an explanation for this curious paradox: "Traditionally Costa Rica struggle in the early stages of campaigns. The coaches then find it tough as the public are very demanding and the press can go overboard. That said, I can't deny we had a major sequence of bad results."
That is all in the past now, though, and the midfielder recognises the role new coach Rodrigo Kenton has had in turning around the team's fortunes. "Now with this boss in charge, the squad have a different philosophy. It may appear that we've been winning games easily, but in reality we've just made it look easy. Now, we'll be facing teams with a lot more pedigree and know we can expect more intense battles. That said, for me it is still the best part of the qualifiers," he adds.
At 34, Centeno knows that the South African finals could well be his swansong, something that has completely changed his outlook on football. "My goal of making it there is what has kept me playing with the national team. I want to bow out on a high - playing at the World Cup and reaching the knockout stage, something I've yet to achieve. I want to live every moment and savour it all, as I know I'll miss it when it's gone."
It is precisely this philosophy he wants to pass on to his team-mates. "The coach has given me a leadership role within the squad, and that means I have to be always motivated. The other players should always see me being positive, so my goal is to be constantly upbeat with plenty of enthusiasm and words of wisdom."
We end by asking what can we expect of Walter Centeno when he finally decides to hang up his boots. "It's no secret that football has been my life and that the sport has given me many things. I have a duty to give something back, and I'll do that through working with kids. I'll be trying to pass on my knowledge to promising youngsters who dream of being the stars of the future."