There is a baby in every great team. Usually he spends his time watching from the bench, picking up lessons from veterans. His job is to listen, learn and wait his turn. But Joel Campbell, just 22 and Costa Rica’s youngest player at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, is learning to swim in the deep end. He has started every one of Los Ticos’ four games, emerging as one of the revelations of the competition.
“He’s still young, but he’s no baby,” Costa Rica’s oldest player, Christian Bolanos, told FIFA.com after one of the team’s raucous training sessions. A smile grew on his lips as the midfielder discussed the brash rising star of Costa Rican football. “Joel’s growing up quickly. He can hurt you one-on-one,” he said. “He’s got pace and can score goals too.”
Campbell was just 19 when he caught the eye of talent-spotter extraordinaire Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal boss signed him on a five-year deal. The striker was a complete unknown outside Costa Rica, but Wenger – famed for launching the careers of Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas – saw something special. Campbell has since spent three seasons on loan in France, Spain and Greece learning the rigours of European football and the hard, fast lessons of a young professional far from home.
Last term with Olympiakos, Campbell’s global profile increased when he scored against Manchester United in a run to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. “We’re helping him along,” said Costa Rica’s elegant captain and playmaker Bryan Ruiz, whose gentle and soft demeanor is in stark contrast to Campbell’s swagger. “He has a lot of things to learn but he’s important to this team. We’re looking out for him. He’s gone very far very fast.”
Stocky and powerful, with a low centre of gravity, Campbell is being asked to play a demanding role in Brazil. He is up front, all alone, in Los Ticos' counter-attacking formation. His job involves banging into crowds of grizzled, older defenders. He controls the ball, waiting for help to arrive from deep. It requires patience, self-control, physical strength and balance. And it is a job he is doing with the assurance and calm of an old professional.
He struts around the Costa Rican camp, the fire and fearlessness of youth burning in his chest. He is cocky and he’s brash. His older teammates nudge each other and smile when Campbell pulls off something magnificent in training. “This is a new level for me,” Campbell announced. “This is the World Cup and there’s nothing bigger. I want to perform here. I want to score goals and help the team any way I can. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean less is expected of me.”
A big-boy role
Campbell is one of those special players that can make a good team great. He scored against Uruguay, a game in which Charrua defender Maxi Pereira lashed out at the young striker in sheer frustration. Campbell kept his cool to score in the shootout against Greece. And he went toe-to-toe with Italian centre-back Giorgio Chielini for 90 minutes, forcing the Azzurri and Juventus icon into a bad day at the office.
“We’re an extraordinary team,” Campbell said, not yet practiced in the art of boring sound bites. He is unpolished and he says ways what he means. “We’ve worked really hard and we have some of the best players Costa Rica has ever seen.”
Campbell looked over to the bench, pointing out the likes of Ruiz, Bolanos and Junior Diaz as the reason for the unprecedented success Costa Rica have achieved. “Guys like these are a great. Their experience is invaluable,” said Campbell, singling out assistant coach Paulo Wanchope, the former star striker many are comparing Campbell to. “They have seen it all and done it all. They’ve played at the top level. They give advice and make sure things are done right.”
Costa Rica’s baby, playing in his first World Cup, now faces an historic quarter-final against European powers the Netherlands. And his older mates beam with the pride of elder siblings. “He still has a lot of lessons ahead of him,” skipper Ruiz said with a grin. “We’ll give him what he needs.”