Costa Rica’s quest to appear in its third straight World Cup finals is off to a solid start.
The men’s national soccer team, known as La Sele, bested Honduras 2-0 Wednesday night at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José, to kick off the final phase, known as the hexagonal, of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The usually busy streets were empty by 7 p.m. as Ticos filed into bars to cheer on the squad.
The team was without popular starters striker Bryan Ruiz, defender Gilberto Martínez and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who were all out due to injuries. But the absences didn’t matter as several players stepped up.
Striker Andy Furtado was the man of the match, scoring both of the game’s goals, in only his seventh game with La Sele.
After an erratic, scoreless first 45 minutes, the second half opened with a smart goal for Furtado – and a painful one for Catracho keeper Noel Valladares. Four minutes into the half, Furtado, 28, drove a header low off a cross from team captain Walter Centeno, which bounced on the ground and through Valladares’ legs.
Eleven minutes later, Furtado, left unmarked at the top of the penalty box, notched the game’s second goal off a wellplaced cross from winger Armando Alonso.
Honduras were not without their chances, but watched in agony as midfielder Amado Guevara’s shot in the 73rd minute and striker David Suazo’s header 10 minutes later both went just wide of the net.
Centeno, the 34-year-old Saprissa midfielder, tied a national team record with his 124th appearance for La Sele.
Tico goalie Ricardo González, 34, who only recently lost the starting keeper spot to Navas, 22, was back in the starting position, and although he looked shaky at times, was able to make the saves when called on.
Furtado is the team’s rising star, having now scored five goals in his seven appearances.
Costa Rica thus starts the hexagonal at the top with the three points from the win along with the U.S., who beat Mexico 2-0.
In that game – a testy match amid wretched weather in Columbus, Ohio, in which Mexican captain Rafael Márquez got himself ejected after receiving a red card in the 66th minute – Michael Bradley, head coach Bob Bradley’s son, scored twice as the U.S. shut out El Tri for the third time in a row. In its last four games, the Mexican squad has lost three times and tied once, and rumors are already circulating that the skid will cost storied Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson his job.
In the region’s other hexagonal round opener, El Salvador managed to scrape back from a 0-2 deficit against Trinidad and Tobago, as forward Osael Romero scored two goals in the game’s last eight minutes, to the thrill of the home crowd.
This week, Costa Rica jumped a whopping nine places to number 38 in new national team world rankings released by FIFA. The team was ranked 79th when Kenton took over last July, and has steadily climbed the global ladder since. Costa Rica also leapfrogged Honduras, who moved from 40th to 39th.
The U.S. is ranked 20th under the new rankings and Mexico 24th. Trinidad and Tobago are ranked 78th, and El Salvador hold the 107th spot. The six teams in the hexagonal will play each other twice, once at home and once away, over the next nine months.
For La Sele’s next game, the team will head north to play the struggling Mexican squad in its capital on March 28. The two teams have a habit of undoing each other at home: La Sele’s only home loss in the last three World Cup qualifiers came against Mexico four years ago, while Costa Rica is the only team, according to FIFA, to have ever beaten El Tri at home.