Christian Bolanos never stops moving. The Costa Rica midfielder races up and down the right touchline in a blur. He may be the oldest player in the squad, at 30, but it’s not slowing him down.

An enthusiasm and electricity defines this team, a balance between young pretenders and those who’ve been around the block. Bolanos is a bridge to the past. He is the only member of the current side who played at Germany 2006, the last time Los Ticos reached the FIFA World Cup™. They lost all three of their games then.

“We’re hungrier now,” he said. “Back then we didn’t have many guys playing abroad. Now they all want to and they look to the guys who went before as an example.” Younger boys in the team look up to the veteran, currently with FC Copenhagen, and venerate him for the trail he helped blaze.

Costa Rica’s pre-match training kickarounds are like a mash-up of street football, neighbourhood party, and chaos. Sometimes goalkeeper Keylor Navas plays on the field and captain and creator Bryan Ruiz, one of the other leaders in the side, goes in goal. Assistant coach Paulo Wanchope, still as lean and lithe as when he played for Manchester City and alongside Bolanos at the 2006 finals, gets in on the action too. Tackles crash like thunder and mistakes are mocked with roars and howls. Goals are celebrated with equal enthusiasm, especially when a younger one, like 22-year-old Arsenal signee and prodigy Joel Campbell, sticks one in the net.

In all the swirling motion, Bolanos exudes calm. “We try to stay totally focused all the time on the pitch,” the player who set up two of the three goals in Los Ticos’ opening win over Uruguay, told FIFA.com. “This is the key, never switching off even for a minute,” said the man recognised by the black headband he always wears on the pitch. “I do my part in that like everyone else.”

Bolanos has the warm eyes of a generous leader. He treats his younger team-mates with kindness. And on the pitch, there are few here in Brazil, even among the bigger teams, with a more seamless balance of explosiveness and deft touch. Bolanos has a genuine comfort on the ball and he’s as fast with it as he is without.

“I’m not going to say we’re surprised by what’s happening,” he said, playing down the immensity of Costa Rica’s charge to the Round of 16, topping a group containing former world champions England, Italy and Uruguay. “You build momentum and hope to keep it going. It’s only a surprise to people who don’t know much about Costa Rica."

European voyage
Bolanos was born in San Jose, the country’s capital and most populous city. And while Costa Rica is well off by Central American standards, he comes from one of the poorest areas. His native Hatillo district is gritty, and it was there that he first fell in love with football, took his first steps on an unlikely road to a bigger world.

His professional career began with local side Deportivo Saprissa when he was just 17. In 2005, the same year he made his first appearance for the national team, the club reached the FIFA Club World Cup as CONCACAF champions. Bolanos, for the first time on a global stage and eager to impress, was named the tournament’s third-best player and offers from clubs in Europe began cautiously rolling in.

With a few exceptions, Costa Rican players were rare on European shores then. His move overseas wasn’t an immediate success. The burly and physical Danish league beat the slight and technical Bolanos up early on, but he settled in Norway with IK Start. Eventual adoration from fans and fellow players led to a move back to Denmark and national giants FC Copenhagen, where he won a title last term and is a fixture in the team.

The role of trailblazer is often a thankless one. If Bolanos were coming up the ranks now, he might have an easier road. He would have fewer obstacles to break through. He could have ended up on a bigger stage than the Danish Superliga. His example and efforts opened doors and made his country’s football better. And now he’s reaping the benefits on the biggest stage of them all. “I’m the oldest guy in the team,” Bolanos said, willing to talk on, savouring this moment. “But I feel young now. That’s what football can do.”