In a group that includes England, Italy and Uruguay, it is understandable that Costa Rica have become an afterthought. The Ticos, who reached the knockout stages at Italia ‘90, but are playing at just their fourth World Cup, will not be expected to secure a point, let alone challenge for qualification. But with the other three nations in Group D seemingly focused on each other, Costa Rica may spring a surprise.
Jorge Luis Pinto’s side qualified for the finals with admirable assuredness. In the final CONCACAF qualifying round - a group of six teams from which the top three progress directly to the World Cup - Costa Rica came second. They finished seven points ahead of Mexico and beat both them and the United States.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Costa Rica’s qualification was their defensive record. In 10 matches they conceded just seven goals - the fewest in the group. Such a stingy outlook would normally not be associated with the usually free spirited Sele, but Pinto’s more structured approach has proven effective.
“We used to play free,” notes defender Cristian Gamboa. “We were easy to score on because we drifted forward and left space for the other team to play.
“Our defence is key. It’s not like the old days of free, open football. We’ve been drilled. It’s been hammered into us. Every game, every training session. We stay tight and we break. Defence got us through the qualifiers and it’s part of us now.”
Pinto’s learnt from his first unsuccessful spell with the Ticos, between 2004 and 2005, and adapted accordingly. His foundation of structure, organisation and discipline gives Costa Rica a chance. The 61 year-old will hope to frustrate his more illustrious opponents with a well drilled 4-4-2 or, more likely, a flexible 5-4-1. Pinto’s aim is to stay tight, then hit with rapid counter-attacks.
“We have good players going forward, quick players and, technically, we are very good,” insists assistant manager Paulo Wanchope.
The players who are key to Pinto’s plan and alluded to by Wanchope are Arsenal-owned forward Joel Campbell and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz. They, along with goalkeeper Keylor Navas, are Costa Rica’s standout names. Defender Michael Umana and midfielder Celso Borges will be key, but Campbell - aided by Ruiz and with Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Oviedo injured - is expected to provide the offensive thrust.
“Joel is a big weapon,” notes Ruiz. “We have known that for a while, Joel showed what a great option he can be for us.”
Campbell’s first test will be against Uruguay, who struggled against a deep-lying defence in a recent friendly win over Northern Ireland. After that, comes Italy. The ghosts of Korea DPR, South Korea and New Zealand remain prominent for the Azzurri, whose 4-3 victory against Japan at the Confederations Cup was their first in a second group match since Euro 2000.
Cesare Prandelli’s meticulous preparations will, however, hopefully ensure Costa Rica are respected. USA Coach Jurgen Klinsmann describes them as ‘a team full of talent, a lot of talent’, while Gamboa insists: “it’s 11 on 11 and names don’t always mean a lot on the pitch.”
The 24 year-old’s words are valid. A confident Costa Rica will be competitive and it may be the nation that underestimates them that misses out.