If Nothing Else, Costa Rica Has Sentimentality On Its Side
12:50 PM EST on November 9, 2022
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At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Costa Rica put themselves on the global soccer map with a shocking quarterfinal finish, and they've been chasing that success since. But after a disappointing last-place group-stage exit at the 2018 World Cup, matching that impressive 2014 run seems like a distant dream. In fact, under slightly different circumstances, Costa Rica probably wouldn't even be playing in this year's World Cup to begin with. They failed to qualify directly for Qatar after finishing fourth in CONCACAF qualifying just behind the USMNT. They then went to the intercontinental playoff and faced New Zealand, coming away with a narrow 1-0 win thanks in large part to two VAR decisions that went their way.
Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell scored in the game's opening minutes to give Los Ticos the early lead. In the 39th minute, New Zealand had an equalizer called off by VAR for a foul in the build-up to the goal. The call was controversial, but not as harsh as another VAR check in the 69th minute that led to a red card for New Zealand forward Kosta Barbarouses and left the Kiwis playing a man down. The score held and Costa Rica was through.
"I thought we were by far the better team," New Zealand coach Danny Hay, who was not just being a sore loser, said after the match. "One team dominated, there was only one team trying to put together good quality football."
Costa Rica has qualified for every World Cup in the 21st century with the exception of the 2010 tournament. By the skin of their teeth they snuck into this one, which will likely be the last for the core group of players who led the team to glory in Brazil in 2014.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
In most cases, a 37-year-old player who is retired from club soccer and likely won't be starting for the national team would not count as a main guy. But Costa Rican legend and team captain Bryan Ruiz deserves some acknowledgement. A left-footed attacking midfielder who can slot in at striker, Ruiz is the country's fourth-leading all-time goal scorer with 29 in 144 appearances. Though he's certainly washed, Ruiz's veteran leadership and storied history with the national team—along with his plans to retire from international soccer after this World Cup—combine to make this final trip to the World Cup a meaningful one. Costa Rica is unlikely to advance out the group stage; why not let them enjoy this World Cup on sentimental terms?
Ruiz has played in top leagues around the world. He started his professional career with Costa Rican club Alajuelense, to which he returned in 2020 (and retired from earlier this year). In between, he played in Belgium (Gent), the Netherlands (Twente), England (Fulham), Portugal (Sporting CP), and Brazil (Santos). He had a few especially productive seasons with Gent and Sporting CP, but his performances for Costa Rica are what have made him a star. Most memorably, he scored in Costa Rica's 1-0 win over Italy during the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.
Ruiz first appeared for Costa Rica all the way back in 2005, and has certainly put enough into the national team to earn himself one final trip in 2022. There are worse things for a World Cup fanbase to have to look forward to than a warm sendoff for a national hero.
“For us, players of a generation that is coming to an end, so to say, it is nostalgic and very emotional to have this opportunity and to know that for many years we have given our best effort in the national team, we have achieved important things, we have even cried for some failures we have had during this process,” Ruiz said in June. "To celebrate 17 years in the national team is really a great achievement for me and it is a joy to be able to have this opportunity to celebrate so many years and so many games with the national team."
Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?
That would be former Real Madrid star and current Paris Saint-Germain keeper, Keylor Navas. The 35-year-old been a mainstay for Costa Rica since the 2014 World Cup and is regarded as one of the best keepers in CONCACAF history. He won three Champions League titles with Real Madrid but now, like Ruiz, is on the downslope of his career.
Navas has struggled to get minutes at PSG and is currently playing behind Gianluigi Donnarumma. He was also left off the roster for Costa Rica's international friendlies in September. But Manager Luis Fernando Suarez cast that decision as a vote of confidence in the veteran keeper.
"The least I have to be testing is Keylor Navas," Suarez said, per Reuters. "I take this (his absence for friendlies) as a possibility to see goalkeepers for the future, for that reason he is not there."
Suarez has faced some criticism for continuing to select veteran player who are well past their primes instead of younger, greener players with potential. Suarez just really likes his guys, though, and Navas at least still has a lot to offer. Proof's in last season's highlight reel!
Where's The Beef?
Which teams or players does Costa Rica not like? Do Costa Rica's players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
Unfortunately for this section, the Costa Rican team appears to be full of big sweeties who love to say nice things about each other. Navas, Ruiz, and the multi-talented Celso Borges, 34, make up the veteran core of the team and appear to be legitimately good pals. Aw!
Last year, however, the three sued two former officials of Costa Rica's soccer federation, Adrian Gutierrez and Juan Carlos Roman, for defamation after they accused the trio of threatening to lose games in order to trigger the removal of their former coach, Jorge Luis Pinto. From ESPN:
Gutierrez claimed in a 2018 radio interview that during a meeting four years earlier those players had threatened to lose games on purpose if the federation did not part ways with then coach Jorge Luis Pinto.
Navas, the starting goalkeeper of Paris Saint-Germain, and Ruiz, testified on Friday denying they had threatened to lose games intentionally and that the comments made by the defendants had affected their dignity and image.
"It is not something that has come out of our mouths and it will never happen, because we have been professional footballers for many years, we have an honour and a prestige to defend," he told the newspaper Extra.
Ruiz did confirm that he had said in the meeting that he would walk away from the national team if Pinto continued due to alleged disrespectful treatment by the coach towards the players.
Pinto oversaw the team's 2014 World Cup; after that, his contract was not renewed. There have been six head coaches between Pinto and the current head coach, and so clearly I'm scraping the bottom of the beef barrel to serve you this moldy tidbit about the defamation lawsuit that is unlikely to have any effect on this World Cup. On the other hand, beef is beef!
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodriguez Mode
Who is Costa Rica's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
OK, enough about the old guys. If there's a player on this roster who is most likely to give Costa Rica fans a reason to cease getting misty-eyed over what once was and start cheering for what could be, it's Jewison Bennette. The 18-year-old winger, who signed with Sunderland in August, has just begun to make a name for himself. After assisting Joel Campbell on the winning goal against New Zealand, which ended up sending Costa Rica to the World Cup, Bennette was snapped up by the Championship club and has already seen significant minutes coming off the bench.
Bennette's fast and clever; against New Zealand he was one of very few bright spots. He commanded the left wing and stretched the Kiwis' defense out of position. He's inexperienced and Costa Rica has a number of other young players ready to step into the spotlight (Brandon Aguilera, Anthony Contreras, Roan Wilson), but if there is one Costa Rican player with the potential to blow up and become something approaching a household name at this World Cup, it's Bennette.
David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 7.4
James Rodriguez Mode Probability Score: 4.8
Notable Moment In Soccer History
If it's not already clear, the 2014 World Cup was Costa Rica's crowning glory. Los Ticos, whose previous best World Cup finish was the round of 16 in 1990, found themselves in the group of death with Uruguay, Italy and England. No one thought Costa Rica stood a chance against three former world champions who were all ranked among the world's top 10 teams at the time, but Costa Rica made the most of their underdog position.
"Months before people were saying that Costa Rica had no hope and that we were already out," Ruiz said in an interview leading up to the 2018 World Cup. "So we played with more freedom but also with the desire to show those people that they were wrong, that we were there and competing. And that's exactly what we did."
Costa Rica stunned Uruguay 3-1, beat Italy 1-0, and then drew with England, winning the group. In the round of 16, Costa Rica faced a feisty Greek team. After taking the 1-0 lead in the second half, Costa Rica had a player sent off and struggled to fend off Greece's attack, eventually giving up the equalizer in regulation's extra time. Costa Rica held on during extra time and made it to penalties, where a crucial save from Navas helped send them to the quarterfinals.
Their quarterfinals match against the Netherlands also went to a penalty shootout. Ahead of the penalties, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal took a gamble and swapped out goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for his less experienced but physically larger backup Tim Krul. It paid off.
"It worked for them psychologically. Tim Krul is a much bigger goalkeeper. In the end the change worked for them," said Ruiz, who was one of the players to miss his penalty kick. "It was painful to be eliminated. but we can't blame ourselves, the players, or the fans because we didn't lose a single game in the World Cup. We got to the quarterfinals and lost on penalties, which is a lottery as everyone knows."
It was a dream run that launched many of the players' international careers (including Navas's, who made the leap to Real Madrid) and set the bar for Costa Rican soccer.
Fun Geographical Fact
This one is pretty well known but it's still amazing: Costa Rica accounts for only 0.03 percent of the Earth's surface but approximately five percent of the entire world's biodiversity!
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
This flag is saved from being boring and basic by the beautifully detailed off-center seal that gives it a little zhuzh.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
Nice sound, short, includes the threat of armed opposition (If anyone should attempt to besmirch your glory/ You will see your people, valiant and virile/ Exchange their rustic tools for weapons). Good.
How Can They Win It All?
Costa Rica was drawn into one of the scariest groups in the tournament, with perennial heavyweights Spain and Germany. The group is rounded out with Japan, a lower-caliber team that nonetheless gave the USMNT a rude wake-up call in September, trouncing them 2-0. So as it stands, Costa Rica is all but guaranteed to improve on their 2014 World Cup performance so long as Ruiz and his aging buddies discover a secret fountain of youth sometime in the next week.