Costa Rica booked their place at the 2022 World Cup with a tight 1-0 victory over New Zealand in the intercontinental playoff, thanks to an early goal from Joel Campbell.
For the first time in the nation’s history, they have qualified for a third successive World Cup, a feat celebrated amongst Ticos all around the globe, as the euphoria of another World Cup is now secured. A wonderful achievement on a forgettable night, forever etched into Costa Rican footballing folklore.
In team news, Keylor Navas returned between the sticks and captained the side, with usual skipper Bryan Ruiz beginning on the bench. Keysher Fuller got the nod at right back alongside Óscar Duarte, Francisco Calvo and Bryan Oviedo at left back.
The battle-versed pair of Celso Borges and Yeltsin Tejeda started in the middle of the park, with a staggering 221 caps between them, more than the entire New Zealand starting 11 combined! As coach Luis Fernando Suárez opted for an experienced defence and midfield. Jewison Bennette and Gerson Torres got the call on the right and left wings, respectively, with Joel Campbell and Anthony Contreras starting up front.
After just 3 minutes of play, Costa Rica stunningly opened the scoring with Joel Campbell cooly slotting into the corner of the net from a pinpoint Jewison Bennette cross down the left flank. The perfect start, as jubilation ensued among the Costa Rican bench.
On the 11th minute, New Zealand nearly levelled the tie, with striker Alex Grieve shooting just wide of the goal. This was followed by another chance just moments later with Keylor Navas’s uncharacteristically poor handling from a Chris Wood flick-on. A barrage to warn the Tico players of what the opponent was capable of.
The rest of the half followed a similar pattern, with New Zealand having most of the pressure and chances. Striker Wood had the ball in the net in the 39th minute, after a poor clearance by Yeltsin Tejeda, only for VAR to overrule the strike after a foul in the buildup. Praise VAR! The check found that Matthew Garbett had fouled Óscar Duarte.
Despite the early goal, it was a tense and unnerving half for La Sele. And Luis Fernando Suárez made 3 changes at the interval, with Carlos Martinez, Kendall Waston and Bryan Ruiz entering the fray, as well as a formation switch to stem the tide, as the side reverted to Suárez’s signature 5 at the back.
However, these changes did not alter the game flow much, with New Zealand firmly camped in the Costa Rican half, as La Sele struggled with the superior height and physicality of the Oceania nation.
New Zealand’s hopes of an equaliser were seriously hampered when Kosta Barbarouses, the second-half substitute, lasted barely 8 minutes before being dismissed for a studs-up foul on Francisco Calvo. Another VAR check saw his yellow card converted to red.
Minutes later, Costa Rica nearly doubled the lead with just their second effort on goal, with Anthony Contreras’s effort smartly pushed away by the New Zealand goalkeeper.
In the final quarter, the talismanic Keylor Navas made a fine save from Clayton Lewis’s long-range effort, as Los Ticos stood firm with their trademark resilience to see out the rest of the match.
12000km separate the 2 nations, but in this game, they were united in a battle for the ages; as the better side, with a monumental 67% of the possession, New Zealand can feel somewhat aggrieved in defeat, but sadly, that’s the harsh reality of football, the better side doesn’t always win. Nonetheless, praise must also go to Costa Rica, who used all their nouse and experience to grind out a famous victory and qualify for yet another World Cup. The defence can especially take a substantial amount of the glory as they soaked up all New Zealand’s attacking endeavors expertly. It may not have been the prettiest of performances, but as Jose Mourinho once remarked, ‘Finals are not for playing, they are for winning.’
Here are my player’s ratings:
1) Keylor Navas (C)- 9/10 (MOTM) Stunning save from Lewis’s effort was one of the match highlights, but he also commanded his box stunningly throughout, amid constant New Zealand pressure.
4) Keysher Fuller- 6/10- Worked hard, but not quite a game suited for Fuller’s strengths, as the low-block set-up didn’t allow for his usual attacking output.
6) Óscar Duarte-8/10- A rock at the back, used all his experience to withhold the opposition pressure.
15) Francisco Calvo- 8.5/10- Arguably the best Tico player through the whole campaign, a warrior on the pitch.
8) Bryan Oviedo- 8/10- Massively improved today, really solid at the back.
17) Yeltsin Tejeda- 7/10- Poor slice which led to Wood’s goal, which fortunately VAR overruled, but other than that, showed boundless energy and hard work.
5) Celso Borges- 7/10– He could not quite play his usual game, as La Sele saw little of the ball, nonetheless still showed great intelligence to disrupt the contest.
13) Gerson Torres- 6.5/10- Pretty quiet appearance before being replaced at half-time.
12) Joel Campbell- 8/10- Great finish for the match-winner; held the ball up amazingly during the rest of the game to move the team up the pitch.
9) Jewison Bennette- 7/10- Great assist before being replaced at half-time, massive future for this young superstar.
7) Anthony Contreras- 7/10– A couple of flair moments, and he was a continuous nuisance to the Kiwi backline.
2) Carlos Martinez (45 minute for Keysher Fuller)- 7.5/10- Added vital steel to the shaky backline.
19) Kendall Waston (45 minute for Gerson Torres)- 8.5/10- Colossal at the back, won every aerial duel and added much-needed height and physicality to the Tico defence.
10) Bryan Ruiz (45 minute for Jewison Bennette)- 6.5/10- Hard to get too involved in a defensive set-up, but still brought some crucial composure to proceedings.
20) Daniel Chacón (79th minute for Celso Borges)- N/A
11) Johan Venegas (90th minute for Joel Campbell)- N/A
Luis Fernando Suárez- 8/10– Classic Suárez gameplan, score, sit back and hold the victory, may not be pretty to watch, but has proven to be effective. He silenced many of his critics with qualification and can rightly bask in the glory now.
Costa Rica’s victory means they will take their place in Group E in the Qatar World Cup, alongside Spain, Germany and Japan, with the tournament starting in November. A feat that appeared nigh on impossible just a few months ago. But an incredible 7 wins out of the last 8 games in CONCACAF qualifying means it’s now a stunning reality. Credit must go to the players who have shown great character and courage to deliver an astonishing turnaround.
There is a special attitude in these spirited Tico players that never dies no matter how strong the adversity. For the likes of Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Keylor Navas, it’s a Costa Rican record third World Cup, a fitting send-off to these stalwarts of Tico football, who are true embodiments of this stoic mentality.