Can Costa Rica Sneak Up On The World Again?
11:37 AM EDT on June 30, 2023
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For a low-ranked nation with one World Cup appearance to their names, Costa Rica certainly made the most of their brief moment in the sun. Las Ticas surprised everyone when they beat Mexico and advanced to the final of the 2014 CONCACAF Championship, qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in the process. Drawn into a group with South Korea, Spain, and Brazil, the world wrote off Costa Rica as easily the fourth team in a three-team group, there to be blown to smithereens by their superior, far more experienced counterparts.
Just 13 minutes into their first match with Spain, they were on track with projections, allowing Vicky Losada to score after a pretty spin move inside the box. But instead of rolling over, Costa Rica's Raquel Rodríguez scored from a cutback one minute later, Dinnia Díaz kept Spain from taking the lead with a bunch of impressive saves, and Costa Rica clung on to their hard-fought and wholly unexpected point. Four days later, they pulled off an even more dramatic draw with South Korea when Gloriana Villalobos scored an 89th-minute equalizer. This is the stuff World Cup dreams are made of! All that stood between the Costa Ricans and the knockout rounds was Brazil. Surely they could do it!
Alas, Las Ticas did not do it, though they did come close. Our underdogs kept the match scoreless until Brazil finally nabbed a winner in the 83rd minute, sending Costa Rica home after three strong showings. The 2023 tournament will be their second go-round, and like last time, they've found themselves in a tough group. Amelia Valverde, who managed the team in 2015 at age 28, will be back for her second run on the big stage, though, interestingly, she is not bringing perhaps Costa Rica's most decorated women's player of all time. Shirley Cruz announced her retirement from club and international soccer only days after Valverde didn't name her to the provisional roster (the team hasn't announced their final roster yet). At 37, after spending 21 years playing international soccer and 13 years in Europe, Cruz's decision to walk away makes sense. But can Costa Rica get by without their talisman?
Who Is Their Star?
Absent Cruz, there is a clear answer: Raquel "Rocky" Rodríguez, who, like many of her teammates, has been around the program since a very young age. She began training with the senior national team at only 11 years old, encouraged by her family to break into the national team so she could get a scholarship to an American college. It worked, and she started all four years for Penn State, concluding her senior 2015 season in the most story book way possible, winning national player of the year, scoring the championship-clinching goal against Duke, then banging in her country's first-ever World Cup goal that summer against Spain.
After being selected second overall in the NWSL draft, she won rookie of the year playing for Sky Blue FC and she now plays for the Portland Thorns. Rodríguez hasn't been as prolific for her club teams as she's been with Las Ticas, partially because she gets to play more of a straight-up forward role for the national team. Rodríguez is an inventive player, with great passing range, but is best known for her nose for goal. She has a ton of goals from weird little angles, including the opener in Portland's 2-1 win over San Diego in last year's NWSL playoffs, and she has a knack for running into space at just the right moment, or dropping off the play and being perfectly available for a cutback pass.
She has so many goals like this.
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
Attacking midfielder Priscila Chinchilla played an important role for Las Ticas' qualification effort at the 2022 CONCACAF Women's Championship, starting all five games on the left wing. Chinchilla is a winger's winger: tiny, zippy, and daring on the ball. She loves to dribble directly at people and then drop off a smart, simple pass once she's attracted extra defenders. She moved to San José to pursue a professional career when she was just 13, and within a year was already a star on Costa Rica's U-17 team.
Two years ago, she made the leap to Europe, playing for Glasgow City in the Scottish Premiership. Chinichilla has been open about how hesitant she was before the move, not knowing where Scotland was on the map and really not wanting to have to learn a new language. But trip was an instant success. Chinchilla has scored nearly a goal per game for her team, and she was named the first-ever SPL women's player of the year last summer after helping Glasgow City win the league (a feat they repeated this year). Pardon the screen recording here and check out her goal in the Champions League.
Who Is Their Enemy?
It would have been their own corrupt federation only a few months ago. Rodríguez called out the federation in the New York Times in 2016 for stiffing the players the $2,000 bonus they earned for qualifying for the World Cup, and after seven years of hard work, the national players union (representing both the men's and women's sides) won a big victory in April 2022 when they signed a deal with the federation guaranteeing Las Ticas the same proportional percentage of bonuses as the men's team and a ton of other rights and upgrades. It was accurately hailed a groundbreaking step for Latin American soccer.
And so with that in mind, their enemies are the big dogs of CONCACAF: Canada and the dreaded USWNT. They've lost 15-0 to the USWNT over their last three games, though last year's 3-0 loss is a mark of progress. Maybe someday they will score against the Yanks.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Talamanqueña mythology centers around the life of Sibú. Before he was born (or, depending which origin story you prefer, made), the world was run by his piece-of-shit grandfather Sórkura and largely populated with demons. There are three competing creation myths for Sibú: Sibú's father Sibökõmõ worked in the underworld with magic stones, and one of these stones grew into Sibú; a similar one has him being born in the underworld and targeted for extermination by said overworld demons, only to escape through tunnels dug for him by a termite god; and, finally, there is a classic Moses-style myth about Sibökõmõ finding Sibú on a riverbank.
Sibú's story is long and complicated, but essentially, he purifies the world of demons often with the help of various animals and animal-gods like his sister the tapir god Nãmãitãmĩ and the vampire bat Dukúr Bulu, whose turds turned into trees. Once his work there is done, he gets around to creating human beings and showing them how to live.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
The national dish is gallo pinto, a regionally specific form of rice and beans distinguished by the gloriously sour salsa lizano. Imagine the best form of ketchup you have ever had, with the sweetness dialed down and a light frisson of fermentation, with a just enough of a hint of spiciness to keep things interesting. My partner and her family traveled to Costa Rica a few years back, and when they told me about salsa lizano, I was so intrigued that I took the bus down to the one grocery store in the East Bay that sells it. I've been hooked ever since, always keeping a bottle in the fridge.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
Beating the Zambians. They will leave everything they have on the pitch to leave the Spain game with points, and though there's precedent for just that outcome, it would be unreasonable to expect it to happen again. Japan is also the far superior team on paper, and locking in the country's first-ever World Cup win would be a big accomplishment.