When Rodrigo Kenton took over the reins in June, the atmosphere surrounding the Costa Rican team could scarcely have been grimmer. Former hero Hernan Medford had been sacked in acrimonious circumstances, and the team, widely regarded as the third part of CONCACAF's 'big three' behind USA and Mexico, were in deep crisis.
Three wins, nine points and 11 goals later, Costa Rica's fans and media are hailing a stunning turnaround and oozing confidence. FIFA.com recently caught up with the brain behind the revival.
"It was all gloom and doom when I took over the job," said Kenton, the former Saprissa player who took the position with less than a month to go before the group phase of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "Everyone was talking about how the team had lost its way and everyone was very negative. It wasn't a great time to take over the team!"
A side on the slide
Such negativity in the Central American country came about as a result of poor results stretching all the way back to the 2006 finals. After going out in the first round in Germany, the team struggled before making an early exit in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup before drawing 2-2 with Grenada in pre-qualifying for South Africa 2010. It was the last straw, and Medford was sacked in June as the Ticos fell to 79th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from a best-ever 17th.
"The first thing I had to do was change the attitude in the team," said Kenton, who assisted Bora Milutinovic at Costa Rica's first world finals at Italy 1990. "I knew once the players started to get into a rhythm and start playing good, attacking football, that the fans would come around."
Attitude is one thing, but the new coach also had to change the face of the team. "It's a strange thing in Costa Rica, but sometimes the players who are playing outside of the country don't get a chance," the Limon-born coach revealed. "But I knew that we had good players in Costa Rica spread out all over the world. It was my job to find the right balance."
Inside knowledgeKenton also had a bit of inside information to help him in his new job. As the Costa Rican Olympic coach in the early 2000s, he had intimate knowledge of a talented, but tragically underused, crop of Tico players. Austria-based Froylan Ledezma, Junior Diaz and Gabriel Badilla (New England Revolution) are just a few of Kenton's more impressive call-ups. Perhaps his most inspired tap, though, was one Bryan Ruiz of Belgian club side K.A.A Gent.
"He is a very interesting player," enthused Kenton. "He's a very elegant player, but the first few times he was called up he didn't show too much. I kept faith in him, and before our last game against Haiti,
I took him aside and said: ‘I know you're a good player and so do you, so go out there and enjoy your football.' Playing in a free role, he was amazing and he scored two goals in a win
The 3-0 win over Haiti in Port au Prince was merely the culmination of Kenton's revolution. "It had been ages since we won a game on the road in the Caribbean, which is a lot harder than most people think," the coach said. "But it was built on the two previous results and the high spirit in the camp."
Strength to strength
In his first game in Group 3 of CONCACAF semi-final qualifying round, Kenton's men pulled off a 1-0 win over resurgent El Salvador in which the scoreline could have been much more impressive were it not for an outstanding performance from Salvadoran goalkeeper Miguel Montes. A month later they routed Suriname 7-0, scoring the most goals of any team on a September international break which saw 120 games played.
The Ticos are now on a perfect nine points from their three group games, and need only one more win to assure themselves of a finish in the top two and a place in the final group. Their next game is against Suriname in Paramaribo on 1 October.
"We want to keep the momentum going," Kenton concluded. "We're looking for wins and that's that. The people in Costa Rica are excited, the team's excited and I'm excited."
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