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Soccer: Disappointment, but Also Hope

December 24, 2009

When the 2010 World Cup begins in South Africa in June, Costa Rican soccer fans will watch 32 teams compete in the world’s biggest soccer tournament. But when Ticos look to their monitors to view the games, they won’t see their beloved La Sele, as the national soccer team is known.

That’s because La Sele simply folded and failed to qualify for the World Cup. Watching the games without the Costa Rican team in the lineup most likely will conjure up sour reminders of the 2009 season and all the opportunities La Sele squandered in 2009. It will be the “what-could-have been” and even “what-should-have-been” that will hang over the country well into 2010.

But for the first eight months of the year, it was a different tale. Through August, Costa Rica was in first place in World Cup qualifying in the North and Central American CONCACAF region, winning

four of their first five games and putting themselves in a position in which qualification looked imminent and failure to qualify improbable.

But then things got ugly.

Beginning in August, the team went on a three-game losing skid that resulted in the firing of La Sele coach Rodrigo Kenton and the hiring of Brazilian René Simões.

During the three-game free fall, the Ticos were outscored 8-0, including a 1-0 loss to El Salvador in which they allowed a goal in the last minute of the game. When the dust settled, Costa Rica was in third place in CONCACAF and suddenly fighting for their World Cup lives.

With Simões at the helm, La Sele beat Trinidad and Tobago 4-0 and set up a mustwin game with the United States on Oct.14.

In what was maybe the toughest moment of the year for Costa Rican soccer, the U.S. scored in the 94th minute of the game – during stoppage time, when referees add on to the end of a game to make up for time lost because of injuries or other breaks in the action – to tie the score at 2-2. With the tie, Honduras leap-frogged over Costa Rica in the standings and took the final automatic qualification spot.

But even then, hope was not entirely lost. Due to their fourth place finish in CONCACAF, the Ticos played Uruguay, the fifth-place finisher in the South American region CONMEBOL, for the final World Cup spot for the Americas. After losing 1-0 in the first leg of the playoff at home, the Ticos tied Uruguay 1-1 inMontevideo, Uruguay. Although La Sele had numerous opportunities to win – as in all the previous chances they had to grab qualification – the team failed to capitalize on them. And so what was once the South African dream will forever be considered a nightmare.

Under-20s Captivate Country

In the midst of the failure of La Sele, the young pups of Costa Rican soccer revitalized the country’s enthusiasm.

At the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt in October, the Costa Rican team advanced to the semifinals, only to lose 1-0 to world  soccer power Brazil. It was the furthest anyCosta Rican team had ever advanced in a World Cup soccer competition.

For the semifinal game, President Oscar Arias gave public employees the afternoon off so that they could watch the young Ticos play Brazil.

“All government officials will have time off of work from noon to 3 p.m.,” Arias had said. “We feel very proud of what the Under- 20 team has done in Egypt, and it seems to me that the Costa Rican fans deserve to see the game.”

Though the Ticos lost the semifinal and went on to finish fourth after a shootout loss to Hungary in the game for third place, they have been treated as heroes since returning home, taking part in parades, autograph signings and public appearances.

To top off the Ticos’ success, goalie Esteban Alvarado was named the best goalkeeper in the competition, which augurs a bright future for the local star.

In a year when soccer fans didn’t have a lot to celebrate, the Under-20 team gave the country hope for the future.

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