For many members of the current Costa Rica squad, returning to the FIFA World Cup™ stage is about setting the record straight. After reaching the global showpiece at both Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, a narrow intercontinental play-off defeat against Uruguay meant La Tricolor missed out on South Africa 2010, and everyone involved has been determined to get back on track ever since.
The latest step on Los Ticos’ road to redemption comes on 6 February, when coach Jorge Luis Pinto’s charges kick off the final round of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014 with a visit to neighbouring Panama. Ahead of this tantalising clash, set to be played in Panama City, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to one of the key members of this Costa Rica squad, Spain-based goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Mere days prior to beginning their campaign in the decisive six-team 'Hexagonal' round, Costa Rica wrapped up their preparations in fine style by beating arch-rivals Honduras 1-0 in the final of the Copa Centroamericana 2013 on home soil.
“This proves things are being done the right way and it makes me very happy, because we’re getting results,” said Navas, unable to take part in the Copa due to club commitments. “I’m always in touch with my national team colleagues and I was really pleased that we won.”
Despite missing out on such a golden moment, the custodian has no doubts he made the right choice in moving to La Liga, where he plays with Levante. “Playing in Europe is a big deal, it helps you to grow. You gain very good experience, the kind you couldn’t get in Costa Rica before, and it’s helped us [European-based players] progress both mentally and as footballers,” explained Levante’s No13.
“In my case, even though I’ve not been starting in La Liga, I have been playing in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. [When I’ve played] I’ve done well, and for the national team too, so I’m feeling very at ease.”
The experience has made the keeper, who made his Costa Rica debut back in 2008, his country’s undisputed first-choice between the sticks – a status he also held in the qualifying phase for South Africa 2010. “I feel there’s a lot of confidence in me when I’m with the national squad,” said the former Deportivo Saprissa man. “We’ve been together a lot of years and we know each other’s game perfectly, which helps us perform better.”
Even so, Los Ticos struggled to get into gear in Round 3 of Brazil 2014 qualifying. Drawn in a tough Group B alongside Mexico, El Salvador and Guyana, Costa Rica needed a 1-0 away win against the Salvadorans in the penultimate match to ensure they reached the Hexagonal.
In Navas’ view, those difficult times have helped strengthen the bond within the group: “I feel like we’ve been growing as a team because yes, we did find it quite hard. We weren’t really able to get our game going, but now we’re feeling much better. This group of players have played a lot of matches together now and we know what we’re about, which will no doubt help us in the Hexagonal.”
The first obstacle in their path is a Panama side that must not be taken lightly, given their impressive rate of progress in recent times. “They’ve got good players, who’ve really upped their game,” was Navas’ verdict on Los Canaleros.
“When we go over there we need to avoid making mistakes and losing our heads," he continued. "Even though a draw wouldn’t be ideal, it’s always important to pick up points away from home. In any case, we need to remember that games aren’t won in the first ten or 20 minutes. We need to keep going to the end, stick to our style of play and not lose our composure.
“We’re a young side, which doesn’t stop running all game and fights for every ball,” elaborated the keeper, on the style of play Costa Rica have been honing for the past two years. “But when we have the ball we like to take the initiative. We always try to make the most of any spaces we get down the flanks, as we’ve got quick and skilful players suited to hitting on the counter.”
As the interview drew to a conclusion, Navas signed off with an optimistic message for a Tico faithful anxiously awaiting the Hexagonal to begin: “We’re in a very positive frame of mind and we’re really keen to qualify for the World Cup. Unfortunately things didn’t quite go our way in the last qualifying phase, but all that's done is make us doubly determined and totally focused to achieve our goal this time around.”