Costa Rica has been handed a formidable group if they qualify for the World Cup, in the form of former champions Spain and Germany as well as Japan, which has been titled ‘The Group of Death’. Los Ticos will first have to win June’s intercontinental World Cup Play-off against New Zealand in Qatar to reach the competition.
World Cup Play-off deciders have been a heartbreaking ordeal for La Sele in the past, with the 2010, 2–1 aggregate defeat to Uruguay still painful to many Costa Ricans.
And the fans and players will be hoping for redemption in the upcoming fixture. None more so than Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges, who all played in the Uruguay matches and, as still vital players of the squad, will be hoping to put right some past wrongdoings.
New Zealand will pose an entirely different threat to that Uruguay side, as first of all, they will be the underdogs, which is Los Tico’s usual standing and has served them so well. In the seven-match unbeaten run that has kept Costa Rica in the World Cup qualification mix, they have averaged just 37% possession, which may not be as evident against weaker opponents.
And in addition, this will be the first play-off determined by a one-off match on neutral ground rather than a 2 legged home/away affair, which suits New Zealand as it will bring the underdog more into the contest.
The Pacific Ocean island nation is currently ranked a lowly 101 in FIFA standings, below the likes of Luxembourg and Georgia, and a monumental 70 places below La Sele, who are presently placed at 31. But that statistic is somewhat misleading, as up to this year, they haven’t played a competitive fixture in 4 and a half years due to the logistics and constraints of Oceania football.
Football in the 4.8 million populated New Zealand is usually undermined by the more popular Rugby and Cricket, and despite Costa Rica being the favourites, New Zealand still provides tough opposition. The Oceania nation is certainly not World Cup novices, having reached 2 tournaments in the past in 1982 and 2010, and will be hoping to make it a third in 2022.
They also have several high-quality players, such as Premier League striker Chris Wood, who will provide a physical threat up top. The 6 foot 3 tall Newcastle man has over 50 Premier League goals and recently became the country’s leading goalscorer with an impressive 33 goals in 65 caps.
Commanding captain Winston Reid, who has played over 150 Premier League games for West Ham, will marshall the defence, and Serie A Empoli’s Liberato Cacace will be a major threat down the left flank. The country will also be sweating on the fitness of influential central midfielder Ryan Thomas who plays for Dutch giants PSV and is currently nursing a knee injury. Like Costa Rica, New Zealand also has a couple of players plying their trade in the MLS in Bill Tuiloma (Portland Timbers) and Michael Boxall (Minnesota United).
Furthermore, the nation has several promising up and coming players to keep an eye on, such as Marko Stamenic (HB Køge on loan from FC Copenhagen), Matthew Garbett (Torino) and Sarpreet Singh (Jahn Regensburg on loan from Bayern Munich).
New Zealand eased through Oceania qualification en route to the inter-confederation play-offs with 5 out of 5 victories in the OFC tournament, scoring an impressive 18 goals and conceding just once, capping things off with a 5-0 triumph over the Solomon Islands in the final.
But it must be noted these wins were against Papua New Guinea, Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, all of whom are made up of part-time and amateurs players and all ranked below 140th in the FIFA rankings. As a result, this makes them a comparative mystery as opponents, as they haven’t played any decent opposition competitively to compare them against, which also could be used as a positive for Los Ticos, as they are a considerable step up in terms of quality, and will provide a completely different test to which the All Whites have previously encountered.
New Zealand coach Danny Hay has implemented a dynamic, high-pressing, possession-based style since taking the role in 2019, a far cry from the former long ball tactics of the All Whites. And regarding the upcoming inter-confederation play-offs, Hay stated:
“They (La Sele) have some world-class players, and they started pushing themselves towards the end of the qualifying campaign. The truth is, there are still 90 minutes to go before the World Cup, which is exciting for the country”.
There has been just one match between the 2 nations, a friendly held on March 24, 2007, at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma in San Jose, Costa Rica. Costa Rica defeated New Zealand 4-0 thanks to a brace from Alvaro Saborio and goals from Alonso Solis and current captain Bryan Ruiz.
La Tricolor will be hoping for another positive result in June, but with such immense rewards at stake in World Cup qualification, not to mention the relatively unknown quantity of the exciting and dangerous current New Zealand side, they will fully well know this play-off match is an entirely different prospect.