Suarez: My third World Cup is an obsession for me
Luis Fernando Suarez has a note on his fridge door, a note he wrote in Doha, Qatar, on 1 April this year, the day on which his Costa Rica side found out who they would be facing if they qualify for the FIFA World Cup™. Held in place by magnets, it bears the names of four teams: Spain, Germany, Japan and Costa Rica. He sees them every time he goes to the fridge, next to which sits an arts and crafts set his grandson gave him. “I drink a lot of water so I’m always going to the fridge and looking at that note,” he tells FIFA+. “It’s never far from my mind.”
FIFA+: That note is a way of visualising it, I suppose.
Luis Fernando Suarez: The word I’ve used most in all these interviews over the last few days is ‘obsession’, a word that’s sometimes frowned upon. I don’t see it like that. There are good obsessions. And my third World Cup is an obsession for me.
When I was in the first division, I didn’t even know what it was. When I went and saw everything and did well, the only thing I wanted to do was go back. So, when the Costa Rica job came up, I said to myself: ‘I’ve got to go for it. I’ll die if I don’t qualify.’ That’s where I am right now: halfway between death and obsession. I hope obsession wins out.
Suarez has two World Cup appearances on his CV: the first with Ecuador at Germany 2006 and the second with Honduras at Brazil 2014. He now has his sights on a third, which would make him only the sixth coach in history to achieve the feat.
He took on the Ticos job in the middle of 2021. A year earlier, before entering the race for a place at Qatar 2022, he said in an interview that returning to the world finals was his ultimate dream.
Now 61, he is working night and day to make that dream a reality, so much so that he admitted to being obsessed about the game against New Zealand on 14 June. He also admitted to being nervous, albeit nervous in a “good” way.
How do you deal with nerves?
Suarez: Well, in the mornings I go out for a run or take the bike out. It helps me. It's the only way I can think: when I’m running or on the bike. Then I decide to go and read a book and all of a sudden, a move comes into my head. That's normal, though.
Being a successful coach with different national teams is no easy task. It requires a chameleon-like ability to adapt to situations, get your message across to your players, and excite the fans.
Suarez appears to have hit upon a repeatable formula, one that involves weeks of reading, talking and listening to people. Making the transition to Costa Rica was not easy. Suarez knew little of the country's culture.
That said, he has found the ideal partners in Keylor Navas, Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte, Celso Borges, Yeltsin Tejeda and Bryan Ruiz, the six players who were at Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 and who are now trying to qualify for Qatar 2022. Suarez: They’re very open people. I've soaked up what they have to say and I've spoken to them more than anyone else to make sure everything works out. The first few chats I had with the big names were really rewarding. I could just see that they all want this to work out. Bryan Ruiz said to me: ‘This is my last World Cup and I want it to be the best it can be. I want to help in any way I can.’ They’ve got the lot: leadership and the desire to make everything work. They've really helped me make the journey much less arduous. Without them we wouldn’t be in the play-offs, that’s for sure.
Do you use them to show the youngsters how important all of this and the New Zealand game is?
Suarez: Yes, of course. That’s the most important thing. The kids are picking things up and they’re doing it well. That’s been really important because I can see that they’re players I can depend on to carry the team. I think the most important thing, though, was that they’ve helped me make sure the kids reach the high standard we need.
There was a time when things weren’t going well. The big names are really helping and the kids are following their lead. They pay attention to them. Things are working out. There’s a great synergy between the two groups, even with the generational gap between them.
Is that synergy something you have to nurture?
Suarez: You have to find it with the players somehow. Well, not with players but with people. The main thing is to be able to choose people who are not just players but who are suited to being in the national team, who are good for it. And that’s not just a question of talent. That’s important. But the crucial thing is commitment. That’s the key.
I think these two groups have something: one of them is here to learn and the other to teach so many things. And the ones who are here to teach want to teach, and the ones who have to learn want to learn and take on the world. When you put a good team together – and I’ve had three or four good teams in my 30 years of coaching – that's when you have a mindset where anything is possible. And I can see things in this Costa Rica team.
Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. It’s not a question of just naming the best 11 players in the country; it’s about picking 11 people who are all going to pull together.
One of those 11 people is Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the winner of three UEFA Champions League titles and the team captain and national icon. In Suarez’s eyes, however, Navas is "the most down to earth and relaxed person in the world".
Suarez: There are no airs and graces about him. He never goes off and does his own thing or does things differently to the rest of the team. No. He’s focused, he’s great when he chats to the rest of the guys, he shares a room with a team-mate, and he trains the whole time. He helps the boys a lot.
He’s getting to know them and he’s so committed. The first time I spoke to Keylor he started off by saying this was going to be his last World Cup and that he wants to be there and that I can count on him for anything. He’s a can-do guy.
Suarez has seen what Navas can do on and off the pitch. A case in point was the build-up to the final qualifying match in the Concacaf Zone, against USA. The coach had a shrewd plan in store for his team talk, having quietly asked Celso Borges, who was on the bench, to take to the floor when he asked if anyone else wanted to talk. Borges did what he was asked and spoke to the team, filling them with energy.
And when he finished, captain Navas unexpectedly took over, looking his youngest team-mates in the eye and saying: “I just want to say that it feels really great to be here. I’m committed to the country, but I’m delighted with what I see in each of you. I can see your commitment and your desire to keep learning every day. And that’s what you’ve got to keep doing. If you want to win and be the best, don’t lose the drive and enthusiasm that I see in you today. I’m happy to be here but I’m even happier to see each of you. I’m proud of every one of you.”
That night Costa Rica won 2-0 to book their place in the intercontinental play-off. Suarez: That’s Keylor. People think he’s up there on top of Olympus but no, he’s in the same place everyone else is. He’s the same as everyone else. He knows what he’s about and he lets people see that, but if he has to be on the same level as someone, he is. And that someone is his team-mates.
Navas joined up with the national team in Doha following a holiday that saw him miss Costa Rica’s recent CONCACAF Nations League matches. That decision was made by Suarez, who was keen to try out the other keepers in his squad. First and foremost, however, he needed Navas to rest up after an eventful club season and to be at his best for the New Zealand match, the big test of the year for Los Ticos.
FIFA+: How are the preparations going for the New Zealand game?
Suarez: It’s a tough match against a strong team. From what we’ve seen, they always come up against teams who sit back, which lets them play out from defence. In the final third they usually play the ball out to the wingers or full-backs, who get the ball into [Chris] Wood, their target man in the box. We need to really watch out for that. They’re a tall and powerful team that plays good football and are in good shape.
When you see things from over here you sometimes think a game is going to be easy. But no. Costa Rica have had to really pick their game up lately because they didn’t start off well. We based our strengths on our defence. We’ve improved in attack but we still have a lot to do. So, they’re not going to be as much of a pushover as they say here. As for us, we’re doing OK, but we’ve got a lot of room for improvement. We’ll need to be watchful, careful and show them respect.