They call him 'The Weasel' for a reason, and it’s not just his pointy nose and long neck. Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz is a slender and active predator.
The road to his first FIFA World Cup™ was rocky, littered with near misses and cruel obstacles. “I worked so hard to get here,” the 28-year-old captain told FIFA.com at the team’s home base in Santos, a determination deep in his voice. “I fought for it and I won’t let it slip away.”
As a teenage creative sensation, he was left out of the squad that travelled to Germany 2006 at the very last moment. It was a controversy that rocked his homeland, where he was seen as the most talented youngster to emerge in decades. “I felt a lot of pain about missing that tournament. I felt left out. It hurt me,” he said, the ache still somehow fresh.
Four years later, his World Cup dream ended dramatically again. Costa Rica fell short of direct qualification through CONCACAF by a matter of seconds and slender goal-difference, an inter-continental play-off eventually sealing their fate. “To be here now in Brazil as captain is a feeling of true pride,” said the playmaker, who spent the latter half of 2013/14 on loan at PSV Eindhoven from Fulham.
We don’t sit back; we break forward. This is a new Costa Rica. Look out, because we can surprise a lot of people.
The cynical among us might say Ruiz’s long wait to play in the World Cup has been in vain. The Official Draw for the tournament sent Costa Rica into a brutal group alongside three former champions in the form of Italy, England and Uruguay. But for a man used to adversity, raised by a single mother on the impoverished outskirts of San Jose, he sees only opportunity among the doomsday predictions.
“You want to play the best teams," said Ruiz, a popular player at Craven Cottage. "That’s how you know it’s the World Cup. We’re playing against three world champions. What’s better than that?”
Up first for Los Ticos is a team Ruiz knows all too well: Uruguay. “They beat us four years ago in the play-off,” he remembered, reliving the 2-1 loss suffered over two legs. “So we have history with them. They beat us and then went on to the semi-finals of the World Cup in South Africa while we watched from home on our sofas."
Aside from being Costa Rica’s best player, a truly creative and unpredictable force, Ruiz is earnest. It comes through in the way he carries himself, the way he talks. Thin and wiry, he’s both fragile and sturdy. He is the leader of a small team set to take on some of the world’s biggest stars; the likes of Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suarez to name but a few. Ruiz is defiant too.
“Everyone is talking about the other teams in the group,” he said, a pride welling in his voice. “They’re looking at us like we’re lucky to be here, like we’re here to be beaten. That’s fine. This takes the pressure off. It’s good for us. They can have all the pressure.”
Under coach Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica have become what Ruiz calls “a modern team.” There’s a balance between defence and attack rarely seen in previous Costa Rican sides, traditionally slow-moving and hyper-technical.
“We play with a five-man back-line, but we’re not defensive,” said Ruiz, who is likely to play as a second striker behind hot young No9 Joel Campbell. “We don’t sit back; we break forward. This is a new Costa Rica,” he said, dreaming of the possibility of a shock result against Uruguay, or the impenetrable fantasy of besting the Italians or English. “Look out, because we can surprise a lot of people.”
A place in the second round, in the coveted knockout stages, is on the Tico captain’s mind near the blue waters of Santos. The last time – the only time – Costa Rica managed that was in 1990, in their first World Cup. Ruiz, who’s waited too long for his debut, hopes for even more. “They were heroes, but we want to go even further,” he said, steely, respectful and impatient all at once. “We want to write a new history.”