Costa Rica may have missed out on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but since then they have done everything possible to ensure they do not repeat the experience. That absence, after two consecutive finals appearances, proved a bitter blow, and Los Ticos reacted by launching a football strategy designed to help them reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
With six games gone in the final round of North, Central American and Caribbean qualifying, the Costa Ricans can be satisfied with their progress so far. They currently lie second in the six-team group thanks above all to their impressive defensive rigour, having conceded just three goals in 540 minutes of football.
FIFA.com caught up with one of the stalwarts of that tenacious rearguard, Michael Umana, to find out more about Costa Rica's campaign. Able to play either as a centre-back or holding midfielder, the 31-year-old explained how Los Ticos will approach their remaining games on the road to the finals.
Hard work and focus
Asked to account for Costa Rica's recent form, Umana does not hesitate for a second, underlining the side's "hard work" as the secret of their success. "Every international makes sacrifices and gives himself completely to the team's cause," he said. "We've worked incredibly hard during these qualifiers. We're all aware of what it would mean to qualify for the World Cup. Our squad is very united and totally devoted to realising that goal."
In addition to their defensive solidity, Los Ticos have also been spurred on by their genuine efficiency in front of goal. "It all goes together," said Umana, who played in all three of Costa Rica's matches at Germany 2006 and has contested 21 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. "The defence is performing well, but things are also working in midfield and up front. Everyone attacks and defends together.
"We function as a unit," he added. "Every player in the squad makes the most of his time with the national team so that we can try to improve together. You can see that on the pitch. One of the essential factors in the work we've done has been our focus. Competition for places in the squad has been beneficial and, added to that, the individual abilities of each player have made the difference and allowed us to have a solid team."
Those qualities are about to be put under the microscope as Costa Rica will host USA in their next qualifier in San Jose on 6 September. In particular, Umana and his defensive colleagues will need to put in another miserly display as Landon Donovan will be returning to the Stars and Stripes line-up. "We all know Landon and his ability," said Umana. "Above all, he's a fantastic person, and that's where his talent on the pitch comes from. He's intelligent and he knows how to move and take advantage of spaces. He also masters changes in tempo and pauses in the game to perfection. He's a player who can make the difference anywhere on the pitch."
Despite the praise, Umana expects Donovan to have an uncomfortable evening on Costa Rican soil. "I think he's going to have a very tough match because we have pretty strong players in the area he occupies who are perfectly capable of keeping him quiet," explained the Deportivo Saprissa stopper, now at his fifth club in the Costa Rican championship.
Of course, Los Ticos must not concentrate all their energies on Donovan as they go about their task, especially as a victory against the visitors could prove decisive in the race for qualification. "We're well aware what a win would mean for us," said Umana. "It's up to us to be positive and say things clearly: we're convinced that we can beat USA. We know there are no free gifts in the qualifiers. It's going to be a very intense match."
Costa Rica certainly have reason to believe in their chances. Given the individual talents in the side and the team's collective quality, as well as the work all the players have done on the tactical front, they would be wrong to be anything but upbeat. The mission now is to make sure that the years of hard graft result in something tangible. "The most important tests are yet to come," said Umana. "We still have some way to go and we mustn't be complacent. But if we carry on down the same path, I'm sure we'll reach our final goal. We have what it takes to get to Brazil."