The biggest opportunities in life can often come early and, though he will not turn 20 until 26 June this year, Joel Campbell is already one of the best-known names in Los Ticos’ senior side. With the fans' hopes on his shoulders, can the youngster inspire his country’s bid for a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, after they so narrowly missed out on reaching South Africa 2010?
Under contract at English giants Arsenal, who loaned him out to France's Lorient in 2011/12, Campbell is determined to meet the challenge head-on. Having caught the eye throughout his rise through the Costa Rican youth national-team ranks, the gifted striker has made his mark in friendly action at senior level and is fully focused on firing his nation to Brazil 2014.
With that aim at the forefront of his mind, not least because Los Ticos’ opening qualifying encounters are just days away, Campbell spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
Right from the off, the versatile forward struggles to contain his excitement and enthusiasm at the prospect of taking part in his first FIFA World Cup qualifying phase. “I’m very happy, of course,” he said, the confidence clear in his voice. “I’m aware of the responsibility we have on our shoulders and that’s why I can’t wait for the first match to start. That way we can prove that we’re dreaming of being at the 2014 World Cup.”
Such belief comes not only from his own performances but from his team’s solid displays, which have helped dispel the doubts the Costarricense supporters had concerning their national side. “The team’s been winning games and we went unbeaten for several matches,” said the attacker, speaking prior to 1 June’s 1-0 friendly defeat against Guatemala. “We’ve been preparing in Europe, in Spain, and we’re now ready to kick off the [qualifying] process against El Salvador.”
The Salvadorans will be Costa Rica's first opponents in Group B in the third round of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying, a section which also contains regional giants Mexico, who have not lost to Costa Rica since the historic Aztecazo of June 2001. Guyana complete the line-up of a competitive group, a fact which Campbell was quick to highlight.
It’s been a very radical transition for me, but it’s helped me improve.
“All four teams are going to be battling to qualify, every game is going to be tough and I wouldn’t rule out any surprises,” said the front-man. “I think that Central American sides respect us and we have to prove we deserve it. And of course Mexico are very strong opponents, but I think they can be beaten.”
Clearly very focused on the task in hand, Campbell and his team-mates are determined to help his country’s fans forget the disappointment of South Africa 2010 qualifying. Having reached the two-legged intercontinental play-off for a place at the African showpiece, La Suiza de América were edged out 2-1 on aggregate by eventual semi-finalists Uruguay.
“There’s no doubt that we owe a debt to both the country and ourselves,” said the starlet, who was not involved on the road to South Africa. “The public know that we want it as much as they do. There’s a positive atmosphere in the national squad and we have to keep working hard to put that bitter taste [of defeat against Uruguay] behind us.”
Career on the up
The figurehead of a new crop of Costa Rican players, for whom simply plying their trade abroad is not enough, Campbell and his contemporaries are instead focusing all their energies on reaching Europe's top leagues. For the attacker, it was his standout performances at youth national-team level that earned him his move to the Gunners, with the north London outfit hoping to accelerate the development of their highly regarded youngster via his loan spell in France.
“I’ve changed a lot: I feel more confident, more mature and able to contribute more to the team during this qualifying phase,” said Campbell, on how he has improved on the back of his year in Europe. “More specifically, it’s helped me improve areas of my game such as shielding the ball, when to take on defenders and when to turn, as well as improving my movement and finishing. There’s no doubt all this will help me perform well in qualifying.”
The player also gave his verdict on the major differences between the styles of football played in Europe and Central America. “It’s more physical, more dynamic, more technical and there’s more contact [in Europe]. It’s been a very radical transition for me, but it’s helped me improve.”
Despite the upcoming Brazil 2014 qualifiers looming large, Campbell was still able to cast one eye to the future, one which he hopes includes a first-team role at the Emirates Stadium: “I feel more than capable of playing there. They bought me for a reason and I’ve got the attitude and the talent to compete for a place when the time comes. That’s my dream and I want to make it come true.”
Strong words from a strong character, who is hungry for success on an individual level as well as for club and country. With that in mind, the No9 took the opportunity to end our conversation with a rallying cry to the Costa Rican supporters. “Don’t worry, we’re all going to work together and, given the way we play and our attitude, I’m sure we can make it through.”