Celso Borges set the ball rolling, putting Costa Rica ahead in the penalty shootout that followed their 1-1 draw with Greece in the last 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ on Sunday. Next up to the spot was Konstantinos Mitroglou, who held his nerve to put the Greeks level.
By the time Theofanis Gekas stepped up to take his kick, Los Ticos led 4-3, with every player having converted. Facing him was a former team-mate in Keylor Navas.
Taking up the story in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Navas said: “We played together at Levante and I remembered what he used to do in training. I was confident he wasn’t going to change the way he takes his penalties, and in the end I was able to keep it out.”
Having given his side the edge in the shootout, Navas then looked on as Michael Umana made full use of the advantage by firing home the winning spot-kick, sending the Central Americans into the last eight for the first time in their history. As he celebrated, Navas suddenly found himself engulfed by his jubilant team-mates.
Hearts and minds
The scene capped a long but ultimately glorious night for the Costa Ricans, who began to dream when midfield maestro Bryan Ruiz stroked them into the lead after 52 minutes, much to the delight of a decidedly pro-Tico crowd at the Arena Pernambuco.
But just when it looked as if Jorge Luis Pinto’s side would be going through in normal time, Sokratis Papastathopoulos brought them right back down to earth with a stoppage-time equaliser for the Greeks.
We’ve always wanted to make history and you could see that here
Reflecting on that agonising moment, the Levante keeper, who was named Budweiser Man of the Match, said: “It was very tough to take because the game was almost over. We handled it well, though. We didn’t give up despite being a man down. We kept our heads and kept believing we could make it.”
The first indication that Ticos fans would be in for a heart-stopping finale came on 66 minutes, when Oscar Duarte was sent off after picking up a second yellow card. His dismissal allowed the tenacious Greeks to take the initiative and left Costa Rica with no option but to grit their teeth and organise themselves as best they could.
By the time the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of extra-time, that man Navas had already made seven vital saves to keep his side in the game.
Recalling the moments before the shootout, the 27-year-old custodian said: “We got together in the centre of the pitch and had a chat. The message was that we’d worked so hard to get that far, and we were convinced we could win. I think everyone felt that deep down in their hearts and that’s why we got there in the end.
“There are no secrets. There are 25 of us, including the two guys who are injured but are here with us. We play from the bottom of our hearts, for our country. We’ve always wanted to make history and you could see that here.”
Then came Navas’ decisive reunion with Gekas. The duo had spent just three months together at Levante in the 2012/13 season, but it was time enough for the keeper to make a mental note of the Greek striker’s penalty-taking preferences.
“It’s a fantastic feeling. Thank God I was able to stop it,” explained Navas, who had warm words for his colleagues. “My team-mates also deserve praise for putting all their penalties away. I took confidence from that, and it definitely helped me.”
Up next for Navas and Co is a daunting trip to Salvador to face the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, though as they have shown throughout Brazil 2014, the Costa Ricans care little about the reputations of the teams they face. All that is on their minds is the chance to keep on making history.
“This is a huge achievement for us,” said Navas, having the final word. “We are thrilled to bits and we’re doing something massively important for our country. We need to keep this feeling going. The Netherlands are a great side and one of the biggest teams in the world, but we’re going be just as determined when we play them and show the same character. We’ll be going out to win.”