The Costa Rican Men’s National Team is headed to Russia next month with a massive challenge in front of them: matching their shocking World Cup performance from four years ago, when the team arrived in Brazil with low expectations and became the surprise of the tournament.
La Sele will compete in Russia with a base of 12 veterans from Brazil 2014, while the team is under the direction of new coach, Óscar Ramírez, who has big shoes to fill when it comes to Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto, the ticos’ coach in the last World Cup.
With Pinto, Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals of a World Cup for the first time in history, after astonishing the world by coming in first place in the so-called “Group of Death” (Uruguay, England and Italy). They lost their quarterfinal game a 4-3 against the Netherlands in a definition for penalties (0-0 in 120 minutes).
In Russia, Costa Rica will play against Serbia, Brazil, and Switzerland, members of Group E. The team members from La Sele who are training for Russia acknowledge that the achievements of the last World Cup left very high standards for them to meet.
“This World Cup is much more complicated than the last one, because in Brazil we had nothing to lose. Now people expects a lot from us, and so do we,” Costa Rican Captain Bryan Ruíz, a forward for Sporting of Portugal, said in a video on his website. “We hope that the story will be very similar to that of the last World Cup.”
Ruíz is a key piece in “Macho” Ramírez’s team. A defensive asset, he also covers the entire field, generating attacks and seeking goals.
But the goalie Keylor Navas is the great figure of the team. Now a three-time Champions League title-holder as the goalie for Real Madrid, Navas will be a massive asset when La Sele faces powerful forwards such as Brazil’s.
Certainties and worries
For sports analyst Gustavo Jiménez, former editor of the sports daily Al Día, it seems difficult but not impossible to repeat the performance of Brazil.
“Hope usually seems to be one of the greatest fuels for the tico team. If something has characterized Costa Rican soccer, it is the limited faith of the fans before each World Cup, and now on two occasions [Italy 1990 and Brazil 2014] the performance has been well above expectations,” Jiménez said.
Jairo Villegas, sports editor for the daily La Nación, remembered that Costa Rica had to wait 24 years to be able to advance again to the round of 16 in a World Cup as it did in Italy 1990, the ticos’ first World Cup.
“This team is usually very solid in the back, but has problems attacking. It depends a lot on Bryan Ruíz to generate plays, and some figures won’t even get [to Russia] at their best moment because they’re coming off of injuries,” Villegas said.
Forward Christian Bolaños, with a great performance in Brazil 2014, heads to Russia after months of inactivity due to an injury. Forward Joel Campbell recently returned to the pitch after a prolonged injury and is an unknown.
At the same time, Jiménez pointed out that some of La Sele boasts some players who are “at a point of great maturity,” such as Navas, Ruíz, the forward Celso Borges and the defense Giancarlo González.
What does Russia hold for this team that’s preparing to carry with them the hopes of millions of Costa Ricans? Only time will tell.
This piece was written in Spanish by Marco Sibaja for AFP and translated by The Tico Times.