Costa Rica’s unexpected surge to the quarter-finals makes Jorge Luis Pinto Alasdair Mackenzie’s pick as Coach of the Tournament.
Jorge Luis Pinto’s achievement in propelling Costa Rica to the World Cup quarter-finals must be seen as the greatest managerial accomplishment of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, placing Los Ticos alongside the likes of Cameroon at Italia ‘90 and Croatia at France ’98 in the list of the World Cup’s greatest underdogs.
The fighting spirit and togetherness of the Central American side this summer, representing a nation of only 4.8 million, enabled them to top a group containing three previous world champions and eliminate Greece despite going down to 10 men.
The Colombian Coach is an admirer of Jose Mourinho and their tactics and ethos are closely aligned - Mourinho’s belief in the effectiveness of an organised, hard-working and coherent set of players is clearly reflected in Pinto’s Costa Rica.
“I agree with Mourinho, who says football is first about training methods: the conception, the practice and of course the strategy,” Pinto has considered on his admiration for the Portuguese. The 61-year-old’s rigorous training programme and intense focus on the tactical aspects of the game became evident through the performances of his Costa Rica side in Brazil.
Pinto recognised the quality of his opponents and elected to use a defensive 5-4-1 system that could contain pressure before utilising his players’ pace and accuracy with lethal counter-attacks. This strategy was brutally effective in their opening fixture against Uruguay, which produced a shock 3-1 win for Los Ticos that sent shockwaves through the tournament.
Despite their obvious quality, many continued to view Costa Rica as underdogs who would not genuinely challenge. These voices were soon silenced with a 1-0 win against Italy in the second round of games that guaranteed qualification. The result was achieved thanks to another outstandingly disciplined defensive performance, in which the Azzurri could only muster four shots on target despite enjoying 55 per cent possession.
Having already qualified, another clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with England saw Costa Rica achieve the unimaginable by topping Group D and setting up a Last 16 tie against the stubborn Greeks. Their discipline and concentration faced a mammoth test following the expulsion of Oscar Duarte in the 66th minute and a last-minute equaliser from Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
After this the momentum was firmly with the Greeks, but some fine work from the likes of Keylor Navas and Giancarlo Gonzalez took the tie to penalties. Down to 10 men and exhausted physically and mentally, Los Ticos played a superb shoot-out in which they scored five from five and Navas topped off one of the World Cup’s finest goalkeeping performances by saving a penalty.
The subsequent elimination to the Netherlands on penalties came only after another excellent defensive performance and only due to the final-minute introduction of Tim Krul, whose antics in aiming to unsettle the Costa Rican penalty takers were unfortunately as effective as they were petty.
Despite this, Los Ticos headed home with their heads held high. In five matches, they conceded only two goals. They were unbeaten in 90 minutes throughout the tournament and the performances from the likes of Navas, Gonzalez, Christian Bolanos and Junior Diaz will live long in the memory. With Peru reportedly looking to snap up Pinto, the next most important move for Costa Rican football will be to ensure they keep their Coach, the motivator and strategist who masterminded one of football’s greatest fairytale stories.