“Our defence is key,” Cristian Gamboa, one of Costa Rica’s top young defenders, told FIFA.com. “It’s not like the old days of free, open football,” the Norway-based wide man added, before chuckling: “We’ve been drilled.”

Costa Rica reached the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ through solid defence. They lost just two of their ten final round games in qualifying and conceded only seven goals, one less than CONCACAF champions USA. When asked which member of the smothering, octopus-like five-man defensive unit is the most important, 24-year-old Gamboa casts a glance past his team-mates on the pitch and over toward the dugout. “Our coach is the chief of defence,” he said, smiling.  

Jorge Luis Pinto is a man with a rigid tactical scheme. And one of the Colombian’s first moves when he took over three years ago, after Costa Rica failed to qualify for South Africa 2010, was to offer Gamboa, barely out of his teens, a debut on the right side of defence.

The coach brought a new philosophy too. “We used to play free. You know, like Central American-style,” Gamboa admitted, pointing to a shift away from the short-passing, possession football preferred historically in Costa Rica. “We were easy to score on because we drifted forward and left space for the other team to play.”

Those days are over. But how does a coach achieve such a fundamental shift in culture and style? Gamboa’s answer comes quickly: “It’s been hammered into us,” he said. “Every game, every training session. We stay tight and we break,” added Gamboa, lean and compact, a modern footballer very much in the mould of his idol Dani Alves. “Defence got us through the qualifiers and it’s part of us now.”

The news that Everton’s gem of a wingback, Bryan Oviedo, lost his fitness battle for the finals in Brazil means that Gamboa will need to adopt more of a pivotal role in the rearguard alongside the likes of Michael Umana and Junior Diaz. Gamboa’s toughened since moving to Scandinavia, what he calls a “complete shock” of culture and style from his humble hometown side Municipal Liberia. “It was a lot colder and a lot more physical,” he added about his short stint in Denmark and his time now with Norwegian giants Rosenborg.  

It’s 11 on 11 and names don’t always mean a lot on the pitch.

Gamboa on the tough test in Brazil

He trumpets the notion of system over individuals – very much in line with coach Pinto’s plans – but Gamboa takes pains to point out that, in Keylor Navas, Costa Rica have one of the world’s top goalkeepers. Navas stands behind the backline like an insurance policy. “A strong goalkeeper is the foundation to build on. It can make all the difference,” he said of Navas who plays his club football in Spain’s top flight with Levante and has experience taking on the world’s top strikers, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

While the CONCACAF Hexagonal has its challenges, the World Cup finals will be the true test of Costa Rica’s rearguard resolve. The Central Americans, playing in their fourth finals, are drawn in one of the tournament’s toughest groups. They will meet some of the world’s top attackers when they square off against Uruguay and European royalty Italy and England – all former world champions.

True tests to come for Ticos
Gamboa can hardly stifle a long sigh, a deep intake of breath, when talk turns Costa Rica’s illustrious opponents in Brazil. He stops just short of calling it a nightmare come true. “When we found out, we really couldn’t believe the group we ended up in,” he said. “But you have to grow up at the World Cup. This is the biggest stage,” said the player, one of the first to burst into attack when holes open.

“If we get our foundations right and if we focus on the methods that got us to Brazil, there’s no reason we can’t look the likes of [Luis] Suarez, [Mario] Balotelli and Wayne Rooney right square in the eyes,” Gamboa went on, a firm resolve in his voice. “It’s 11 on 11 and names don’t always mean a lot on the pitch.”

Perhaps traumatised by the mention of some of the world’s best strikers, Gamboa was eager to change the subject. “I won’t give the impression that we’re only defence,” he said. “We’re not a desperate team. We break out fast, and when we do, we have some top players.”

He points first to Bryan Ruiz, the team’s captain and one of Costa Rica’s best-ever creative players. “When we have the ball, he can make anything happen,” Gamboa warned. And up front is the joker in the pack: Joel Campbell. Just 21, the Arsenal loanee proved too speedy and dynamic for most defences in qualifying. “We want him to do the same in Brazil,” he said of Campbell, who racked up Champions League experience this term on loan with Greek giants Olympiacos.  

Gamboa wasn’t even a year old the first time Costa Rica qualified for the World Cup. He won’t remember watching the likes of national icons Gabelo Conejo and Hernan Meford shock the world by reaching the Round of 16 in Italy in 1990. But he’s heard tell of such exploits from family friends and relatives, and he’s hoping to make history of his own. “The World Cup is the dream come true,” he said, suddenly sounding a lot younger than his 24 years. “My fingers are crossed.”