By David Cohn
With the narrowest of losses in penalty kicks to the Netherlands, Costa Rica, the Cinderella of this World Cup, saw its magical run come to an end in the quarterfinals. However, when the sting of this defeat to the Dutch subsides, Los Ticos and their fans will ultimately have so much to be proud of. Over the course of an unforgettable three weeks, Costa Rica commanded the attention of the entire world, captivating football fans with its tactical precision, discipline and extraordinary heart.
I had the pleasure of witnessing part of this run in Costa Rica, as I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Costa Rica for a family vacation during part of the group stage of this World Cup. I will readily admit that, even after Costa Rica’s impressive come-from-behind 3-1 victory over 2010 WC semifinalists and two-time WC champions Uruguay in their Group D opener, I still had some doubts about the chances of Los Ticos to advance from their so-called “Group of Champions.”
For me, it was hard to discern whether Costa Rica was a contender at this World Cup after that match, or simply the beneficiary of the first absence of football’s most perplexing man in the world, Luis Suarez (due to injury rather than the later re-emergence of his “vampire tendencies” in his biting incident with Giorgio Chiellini).
In any case, when my family and I arrived in San José on the day after Costa Rica’s win over Uruguay, I certainly recognized the excitement that this country of only 4.5 million people was feeling after one of its best wins on the global stage, and a victory that avenged a close 2010 inter-confederation playoff loss that sent Uruguay to the World Cup in South Africa at Costa Rica’s expense. However, no one could have known that this victory would merely be the third most memorable win for Los Ticos at this World Cup.
In the leadup to Costa Rica’s second group stage match with 2006 World Cup Champion and Euro 2012 finalist Italy, the expectations among most of the Costa Ricans that I spoke with were rather subdued. While the fans of Los Ticos would certainly be cheering on their team with all their passion against the Italians, many Costa Ricans were not necessarily expecting their team to emerge with all three points against a seemingly powerful Italian squad. On the day of the match with Italy, our rainforest tour guide remarked to my family that a one-goal loss to the Italians would be a great showing from La Sele.
However, Los Ticos would, once again, defy those expectations on a marvelous header from team captain Bryan Ruiz.
When the 1-0 scoreline ultimately held up to send Costa Rica to the knockout rounds for only the second time in the country’s history, my family and I were able to witness the massive celebration in Manuel Antonio (on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast) where we were vacationing. The flag-waving, horn-honking and cheering lasted for several hours, as Costa Ricans could bask in the accomplishment of their national team. Once previously cast off as Group D “minnows” to be swallowed up by the larger soccer powers in Uruguay, Italy and England, Los Ticos had dispatched Uruguay and Italy in consecutive matches, while eliminating England from the competition in the process.
For me, the sheer joy of the moment was probably best summarized by the bartender at our Costa Rican hotel. As a one hour special dedicated solely to highlights from the match, and to the reaction from fans across the country, aired on the TV in the bar, the bartender was describing his emotions at various points in the match. He reminisced about the only other time that Costa Rica had been in this position. At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, in their first ever appearance in the World Cup, Los Ticos stunned Scotland and Sweden on their way to the Round of 16. The pure happiness of that childhood memory, coupled with the joy associated with the victory over Italy, ended up reducing him to tears. With tears rushing down his face, he then exclaimed, “This is the happiest day of my life!”
It was at that moment that I was able to truly grasp how much the World Cup means to so many around the world. Living in the United States, we have the luxury of being able to enjoy the highest level of competition across a variety of different sports all year-round. As such, for most Americans, including myself, the World Cup is simply one of a countless number of sporting events that we will watch this year.
In contrast, while Costa Ricans certainly watch a lot of international sports programming, from a domestic standpoint at least, the main sporting attractions are the Primera División de Costa Rica (although Costa Rican professional fútbol teams have won six CONCACAF Champions League titles, the league is certainly not at the level of many leagues in Europe) and the Costa Rican national team. Therefore, for Costa Rican fans, the World Cup represents their one opportunity every four years to cheer on their team at the highest level of fútbol in the world.
While my family and I had to return to the United States after Costa Rica’s victory over Italy, the journey of Los Ticos was certainly far from over. After a goalless draw with England in the final game of the Group Stage allowed Costa Rica to win its group for the first time at the World Cup, La Sele drew a winnable Round of 16 matchup against Euro 2004 winners, Greece. For the first time in their 2014 World Cup experience, Los Ticos really struggled in the first half of that game. However, the brilliance of Golden Glove Award nominee Keylor Navas helped keep the game scoreless until the shot from the captain Ruiz put Los Ticos in front in the 52nd minute.
As you can hear on the call from the official Costa Rican broadcast, Ruiz’s perfectly slotted shot in the far right corner of the goal set off a massive celebration among Costa Rican fans. As a KZSU radio broadcaster, I can only imagine the joy of that moment for the members of the broadcast, with one of the color commentators practically in tears of joy in the background.
While that goal from Ruiz, at the time, had seemingly put Los Ticos on a direct path to the quarterfinals, Costa Rica would subsequently hit a major speed bump in the form of Oscar Duarte’s red card in the 66th minute. Now reduced to 10 men, Costa Rica would have to desperately hang on just to force a penalty shootout. In the face of seemingly constant pressure from Greece, Los Ticos conceded a 91st minute equalizer to force extra time; however, Costa Rica was able to hold on after that to force penalty kicks, when Navas made one of the saves of the tournament to deny Theofanis Gekas and set up the match-winning kick. Michael Umaña then calmly slotted home his penalty kick to send Costa Rica into the last eight.
No matter how you ultimately choose to look at the 2014 World Cup campaign of Costa Rica, it is rather difficult not to be impressed with its showing at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. Written off in many books as a squad that might not even record a point at the World Cup (Goldman Sachs gave Los Ticos the worst odds out of all 32 teams to win the tournament at 3000-1), Costa Rica not only topped a group that included three squads with a combined seven World Cup titles, but also recorded its best WC finish ever in reaching the quarterfinals.
However, it is not simply the results that were outstanding for La Sele. The statistics, particularly on the defensive side of the field, also validate the form of Los Ticos. Firstly, Costa Rica conceded only two goals in five games, a penalty kick goal to Uruguay, and a Greek stoppage time goal after Costa Rica had already been reduced to 10 men.
La Sele was able to stifle its opponents in two ways. First, they were able to force their opponents offsides by pressing high up the field. Secondly, Costa Rica also utilized an aggressive strategy of sending multiple defenders to the ball when the opposition was able to reach particularly dangerous positions on the field. While the so-called “offsides trap” can potentially be a risky proposition, the trap can also be maddeningly frustrating for an opposing offense if it is executed properly.
In talking about Costa Rica’s “offsides trap,” to say that it was effective would be a massive understatement, as La Sele drew its opponents offsides a WC-best 41 times, representing an astounding average of more than eight offsides calls per game. To put that statistic in perspective, Costa Rica drew nearly as many offsides calls in a single game as the average World Cup team drew during its entire stay at the tournament (8.5). As such, with Costa Rica executing its offsides trap to seeming perfection, its opponents were forced to begin their runs at positions farther away from the Costa Rican goal, resulting in a more compacted field and less space for the opposition to operate its offense.
Furthermore, great communication, discipline and execution of the defensive game plan allowed Costa Rica to send multiple defenders to the ball, particularly when a quality opposing playmaker, like Dutch star Arjen Robben, was in possession. In turn, by maximizing the number of players near the ball, Costa Rica was fairly successful in all three of its group stage matches at reducing the number of quality opportunities that their opponents were able to earn, allowing only 14 total shots on target in group play.
Finally, when these two strategies could not limit the number of scoring opportunities that Greece and the Netherlands were able to earn, namely due to the man advantage and the quality of the Dutch side, respectively, goalkeeper Navas was able to rise to the occasion to help preserve his team’s chances; Navas kept his team in both matches by turning aside a combined 14 shots in the two knockout rounds. Therefore, thanks to this all-around extraordinary defensive effort, Costa Rica was able to stun the fútbol world with its performance at this World Cup.
In short, Costa Rica thoroughly entertained football fans around the world during this 2014 FIFA World Cup, as an unheralded underdog was able to shock the fútbol world with its impressive and tactically sound performances. Although it ultimately was eliminated at the hands of a more talented Dutch side, Costa Rica has become one of the feel-good stories of this World Cup due to its incredible run. At this point, I believe that all that remains to be said is pura vida, Ticos! Thank you for introducing me, and football fans around the world, to your national team and the tremendous spirit of your entire country.
If David Cohn writes this enthusiastically about Costa Rican fútbol, it’s to be expected that his writing on Stanford football will be equally engaging. To remind him where his loyalties lie email him at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu.