After over two years of travelling, Costa Rica and Uruguay are finally reaching the end of the road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. In the wake of next Wednesday’s return leg, the world will know which of the pair will be heading for South Africa, with both teams are hoping to lay the foundations for progress with a positive result in Saturday 14 November’s first leg.

The Costa Ricans are due to play the first encounter on home soil and take on the two-time world champions knowing that they were mere seconds away from securing a direct passage to next year’s showpiece. Denied by a last-gasp United States equaliser in Washington DC, Los Ticos’ supremo Rene Simoes has had his work cut out trying to lift his charges’ battered morale.

Uruguay too had automatic qualification within their grasp: a win over arch-rivals Argentina at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario in their final game would have seen them through. However, in a fiercely contested encounter of few chances, La Albiceleste struck late on to take the spoils and send La Celeste to the play-offs.

The stakes
Costa Rica have been regular visitors to the FIFA World Cup since reaching their first finals at Italy 1990. Despite missing out on USA 1994 and France 1998, the Central Americans returned to world football’s top table for Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, with Simoes’ current squad boasting two players who appeared at both those events: Walter Centeno and Luis Marin. A third finals for the veteran pair would be a regional first.

Uruguay, for their part, are steeped in footballing heritage. Winners of the first ever FIFA World Cup in 1930 on home soil, as well as the famous Maracanazo triumph at Brazil 1950, Los Charrúas have supplied some of the greatest players ever to grace the game in the likes of Jose Nasazzi, Juan Schiaffino, Obdulio Varela, Víctor Esparrago and Enzo Francescoli.

Recent global success has been hard to come by, however, with La Celeste reaching only Korea/Japan 2002 out of the last four FIFA World Cups. Even that came courtesy of a play-off victory over Australia, opponents who defeated them at the same stage four years later.

The build-up
Coach Simoes has put together a careful strategy for his team to follow over the two-legged tie, and Los Ticos’ domestic-based contingent were brought together two weeks ago to ensure no stone has been left unturned. This core of players were subsequently joined on Sunday 8 and Monday 9 November by Costa Rica’s foreign-based performers, with the experienced Brazilian tactician choosing to focus mainly on confidence-building exercises.

Uruguay boss Oscar Washington Tabarez, meanwhile, decided to help his players acclimatise to the artificial pitch at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa and avoid the negative effects of a long-haul journey by putting his squad through their paces at training camp in Guatemala, one equipped with a similar artificial surface. Los Charrúas will be without key figures including Cristian Rodriguez, Jorge Fucile and Edinson Cavani, though a quick glance at the talent in the travelling party underlines the size of the task awaiting Costa Rica.

The star players
Topping this list is one of the world’s most lethal strikers in Atletico de Madrid’s Diego Forlan who, despite his current travails at club level, remains capable of changing the course of any game. Other main men for La Celeste include imposing keeper Fernando Muslera, defensive rock Diego Lugano and young forward Luis Suarez, in prolific form this season for Dutch giants Ajax

Not that Costa Rica short on ability either, with the goals of main man Bryan Ruiz firing his club Twente to the top of the Eredivisie. Aiding and abetting the gifted attacker will be 36-year-old schemer Centeno, the intelligent promptings of midfielder Celso Borges and the safe hands of keeper Keylor Navas.

The stat
5 – The number of domestic-based players in the Uruguay squad, all of whom ply their trade for Nacional or Defensor Sporting. The remaining Charrúas play their football in Argentina or Europe.

The words
“The team’s morale level will be crucial over these games. We’ve been going over this a lot with the players because it’s vital they change their mentality and believe in themselves. There needs to be a belief that they can win and not just from the players, but from the fans and the media too,” Rene Simoes, Costa Rica coach.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, but it won’t be at all easy. The most important thing is to pick up a good result away from home so we can relax more going into the return at the Centenario. We’ve got a lot of quality in this squad and let’s hope we can win and give the whole country something to celebrate,” Diego Forlan, Uruguay striker.