It was in the space of a little over ten years that Costa Rica achieved the two biggest feats of their footballing history. At the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, Los Ticos fought their way to the last 16 of the world finals for the first time and then, 11 years later, they won a famous maiden victory over Mexico at the cauldron-like Estadio Azteca.
Hernan Medford had a big hand in those landmark achievements, both of which are burned into the collective memory of Costa Rica fans. It was his 87th-minute goal that earned Los Ticos victory over Sweden in Italy and took them into the knockout phase, and it was another 87th-minute goal of his that gave them a stunning 2-1 win in the Mexicans’ backyard, the only FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat El Tri have ever suffered at home.
On the eve of Costa Rica’s latest attempt to score another Aztecazo, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the striker-turned-coach, who is now in charge of Guatemalan club Xelaju, whom he led to the Clausura title this year. As well as discussing Los Ticos’ current form, Medford casts an eye back to the days when his physical presence, flair and nose for goal helped them secure their most notable triumphs.
The history men
Medford was only 18 when he made his debut for Costa Rican outfit Sagrada Familia on 27 September 1986. The youngster’s impressive performances led to a move to Deportivo Saprissa, the country’s biggest club.
The 50 goals he scored there opened to the door to Europe, where he made his first stop at Dinamo Zagreb before plying his trade in Austria, Spain and Italy and then moving on to Mexico, the setting for one of the defining moments of his career.
“I’ve got some very good memories, and that win [at the Azteca] was one of the greatest in Costa Rica’s history,” commented Medford, who played for Pachuca in the mid-1990s and who made such an important contribution to one of their successful promotion campaigns that the club retired his No17 jersey as a mark of appreciation.
There are a lot of players with a lot of ability but who haven’t made the breakthrough yet.
Medford’s winner at the Azteca helped Costa Rica take top spot in the CONCACAF qualifying competition for Korea/Japan 2002, with the Mexicans finishing third. The roles have so far been reversed on the road to Brazil 2014, however.
The two have been drawn together in Group B in the third round of the qualifiers, with Los Aztecas leading the section with a perfect record to date, ahead of the second-placed Ticos, who would most definitely welcome another famous win in Mexico City.
“I’m hopeful Costa Rica can win at the Estadio Azteca, but you have to be honest and say it’s going to be tough because Mexico are playing very solidly. It looks a tall order,” acknowledged Medford. “All the same, standards have levelled off in the region these days. Obviously Mexico are still favourites on paper, but everything can change on the pitch.”
As well as the symbolic value of repeating a feat that no other country has achieved, three points from Tuesday’s game would also put Costa Rica well on the way to reaching the next qualifying round. They should not be lacking in motivation, having failed to beat the Mexicans since their shock 2001 win.
“Beating Mexico always gives you a boost and it always will,” added Medford. “We hope we can go there and get the result we need to make it to the next round.” With the great Medford long since retired, Costa Rica are in need of a new hero to come forward and inspire them to yet more unlikely exploits.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who steps up and makes the difference in the team,” said the ex-striker, pondering just who that might be. “There are a lot of players with a lot of ability but who haven’t made the breakthrough yet. They have to show their class and we’re all hoping that they can do that right now.”
We can beat them if we play an intelligent game. They’re not invincible.
Destination Brazil 2014
As important as Tuesday's game is, Medford is not losing sight of the big picture. If Costa Rica are to make it to Brazil, they will have to contend not just with regional powerhouses Mexico and USA but with a clutch of other sides who are showing plenty of staying power in the race for the qualification slots.
“There are a lot of teams who could spring a surprise,” he said. “Panama and El Salvador are playing well and Honduras have a new breed of players who’ve just been to the Olympics. Competing against them will not be easy.”
In attempting to qualify for South Africa 2010, the Costa Ricans finished in the play-off position, going on to lose a two-legged tie against Uruguay. On this occasion, however, there will be no CONMEBOL opposition waiting for them if they take the play-off route again, which in Medford’s opinion at least, will favour them.
“It’s better to play an Oceanian team than a South American side, like we did against Uruguay. We have to be realistic but not get carried away with ourselves, because there are other quality teams who could end up with that play-off place.”
In the meantime, however, comes the latest instalment in a rivalry that is taking on an increasingly high profile in the CONCACAF Zone. The gap that once separated the two sides has closed, to the extent that a repetition of Costa Rica’s smash-and-grab raid in 2001 is not out of the question, especially with Los Ticos in need of a victory to keep their FIFA World Cup dream alive and kicking.
Medford, for one, is hopeful history can be repeated: “We can beat them if we play an intelligent game. They’re not invincible.”