Central American powers Costa Rica reinvented themselves as a sturdy and tactically astute outfit in the CONCACAF qualifying Hexagonal, booking their place at next year’s FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil with two matches to spare. With the ever elegant Bryan Ruiz pulling strings in the middle of the park, around a rock-solid frame, Los Ticos are back at the their fourth finals after missing out on South Africa 2010.
FIFA.com takes a look back at five key components to Costa Rica’s successful qualifying run.
Mean at the back
Costa Rica are historically a side that likes to attack, pushing forward with a short-passing game through midfield. Defence has never been a hallmark of Tico football. That’s all changed, however, and to great effect. Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto has coaxed a level of defensive grit and assurance from his Brazil-bound side unseen in previous years. The rangy backline of Michael Umana, Cristian Gamboa, Bryan Oviedo and Giancarlo Gonzalez comprised a dynamic rearguard in front of Keylor Navas, who remains one of CONCACAF’s premier goalkeepers. The numbers tell the true story, with the Costa Ricans conceding just five goals in the eight games it took them to reach Brazil 2014. “We function as a unit,” Umana, of local club giants Deportivo Saprissa, told FIFA.com. “The defence is going good guns at the moment, but it’s the whole team who gets the job done. We’ve worked so hard.”
Ruiz, the old midfield wizard
If the team as a whole is a little more rigid in their outlook, midfield creator and captain Ruiz hearkens back to a more swashbuckling past. Thin, tall and speedy, the Fulham-based playmaker, who can also push out wide if needed, was at the heart of virtually every meaningful attack of the qualifying campaign. Nicknamed La Comadreja, or the weasel, for his slippery ways, he has the vision of an old-fashioned number-ten, a dying breed. Slowing the game down, or sending a 40-yard ball up the pitch at the right time, the metronomic qualities of captain Ruiz have made him a true hero back home in San Jose, the city of his birth where he grew up humble and hungry. “I like to have the ball, to combine with other players. It’s what I do best,” he admitted humbly about his role in this Tico team.
Old and new up front
There’s no use having a passing wizard like Ruiz in the middle if you don’t have anyone up front to wriggle into the space, find the seams, and eventually, the back of the net. Fortunately for Tico fans, Pinto can rely on the services of wily old veteran Alvaro Saborio and young gun Joel Campbell – a complimentary strike force, with contrasting abilities. Saborio - top all-time scorer for MLS club side Real Salt Lake - is a 31-year-old powerhouse, good in the air and strong of body and mind. He has 30 goals in 72 appearances for the national team, close on the heels of iconic former striker Paulo Wanchope. Campbell, 21, is a speed merchant, elegant and daring with the ball at his feet. He likes to run at defences, and more often than not, he leaves men stranded on the ground, trying to untangle their feet. Between them, the two scored ten goals in the qualifying campaign.
Home is where the points are
Anyone in the CONCACAF zone will tell you the not-so-secret formula to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup from the region. Win your home games and grab a few points on the road. And while once-mighty Mexico seemed to lose their home mojo at home in their intimidating Azteca, Estadio Nacional, in the Costa Rica capital of San Jose, became a true fortress. The Ticos handily won their four games there, against Jamaica, Panama, Honduras and the high-flying US. Over the course of those games they conceded just one goal and scored a hefty eight. Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States, reigning CONCACAF champions, felt the full weight of Costa Rica’s home form, suffering their worst defeat of the qualifying campaign in a 3-1 reverse.
USA feel full force of San Jose
Aside from the bloated scoreline (the biggest margin of defeat for the States in the entire course of qualifying), the American players will likely not soon forget the frenzied atmosphere at the Nacional. Feeling hard done by after a wintry loss in the US in February, a result the Costa Ricans protested due to blizzard conditions interrupting the play, the fans in Costa Rica never let the visiting Americans get comfortable. And the players on the field were fuelled by the passion filtering down from the stands. The hosts were 2-0 up inside ten minutes and the 3-1 scoreline could have been far, far worse for the Americans, who were knocked out of first place that night. It was the eighth loss in a row for the Stars and Stripes on Costa Rican soil and seems to indicate that the biggest home-field advantage in CONCACAF is no longer in Mexico City, but rather in San Jose.