Costa Rica’s Long Way to the Top – Legacy of the 2014 World Cup

Costa Rica’s 2014 World Cup campaign was a result of years of work and determination, combined with the struggles that the nation itself faced. We look back at their coming of age.
Costa Rica
Coat Rica’s football is on a different plane of reality. Art by Revant Dasgupta.

Sitting in the dressing room after a quarter-final defeat, the players knew they had done nothing wrong. They had conceded two goals from open play in the entire tournament, and they had not lost a single game till this one; that too only on penalties.

Sweat dripped from the heads of these footballers who had laced their boots up and come to Brazil to represent a country with a population less than that of Rio De Janeiro. No one had given them a chance, no one had even dreamed that they would last beyond the first round. And yet, as the entire squad sat silent, feeling all the emotions that one feels at the end of an exhausting journey, it is hard to imagine that there were many tears in that locker room. Feelings of frustration, yes. Sorrow, to an extent. Thinking that all was over? No, definitely not. In fact, there was hope. There was a feeling of achievement. There was some amount of bliss.

Four years ago, it was Mario Gotze who came off the bench and scored the winning goal, as Germany lifted atop their heads, the most coveted trophy in team sport. But they were not the only team victorious in that tournament.

One of the teams to lose a deciding game were Costa Rica, who were marginally outdone by the Dutch in a grueling penalty shootout. Yet, this was not the end of the journey. Although they would not be carrying the trophy to their nation, they would return heroes. The nation was proud.

Never in contention, never giving up

The nation of Costa Rica is located in Central America. A scenic place with less than five million citizens, it is one of the least populated countries heading into the World Cup. The country is known for stability in an area where stability is as rare as a misplaced Toni Kroos pass. Over the years, the nation has faced some problems in its economy, but it always grows and becomes better. For example, the majority of the workforce is educated and can communicate in English; the economy has diversified over the years to incorporate more and more fields; and the GDP is increasing at an impressive rate. Costa Rica is also the most-visited destination in Central America.

Even on the field, Costa Rica is Central America’s most successful football team, having won 3 CONCACAF Gold Cups and 8 Copa Centro Americana. It is also the only team from its region to have played in five FIFA World Cups.

And yet, in 2014, which big team was actually wary of them? Being the biggest fish in the smallest pond meant next to nothing when they were about to go swimming with the killer sharks of the football world.

Every tournament has the favourites and the dark horses or the underdogs. You think of the Neymar-led Brazil, the well-drilled German unit, the talented Frenchmen for the former. You think of Belgium’s Golden Generation, the pluck of Uruguay and the quality of the Croatians for the latter. The minnows are there, it would seem, just to fill space. Why take them seriously?

Costa Rica traveled to Brazil in 2014 with no expectations upon their shoulders. In fact, it was despair that faced them as the groups were announced – they were drawn in the same group as England, Uruguay, and Italy. It was that year’s group of death, and everyone in the world thought that Costa Rica would be one of two teams to drop off.

Se despichó! Al chile?

Roughly translating to “such bad luck, really?”, this was the response the nation had when they found out that to get past their group, they would have to get past three former World-Cup-winning teams in order to advance.

No one was waiting for an underdog story, they were waiting for the the other three nations to fight it out as the fourth team sat and spectated.

Jorge Luis Pinto’s men faced a daunting road. Yet, Costa Rica has been used to the daunting road.

The difference in Central America

Almost five hundred years ago, the majority of Central America was a victim of Spanish colonisation. A reign of terror for the natives began the day Christopher Columbus reached Costa Rican land. Less than two decades later, the “poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all of America” was firmly established.

Lack of resources, lack of labour, lack of money; lack of basic human amenities that a person needs to get through the day. Costa Rica was in tatters, and the Spanish dictators ignored it like a bad fruit on sale day, the natives stuck in an endless cycle of working their bodies to the limit to barely get past the day. This cycle lasted for 300 gruelling years.

The Spanish inquisition of Central America represents one of the world’s most bloody conquests that left natives homeless, hopeless, and distant from the place they held dear. And out of all, Costa Rica was affected the most.

“At the end, of a storm, there’s a golden sky.”

Costa Rica became free from the savage Spanish rule in 1821, and a few decades later, a peaceful democracy was formed.

The fight to independence was brutal. Families were torn in those years, blood and tears shed. All of it, to come out on the other side as a nation of free will.

Since then, Costa Rica has not looked back.

From the ashes of a nation torn by Spanish invaders rose a country that has since become a gleaming beacon of hope for the area it represents. Minimal crime, maximum effort. Even though it still suffers from poverty and has a long way to go to be called fully developed, Costa Rica is a shining example of working hard in order to be prosperous.

Andres Neuman writes in his book, “How to travel without seeing” on Costa Rica –

“Costa Rica does not currently have an army. Its national anthem does not boast of improbable epics or illustrious lineages. They limit themselves to singing: ‘Your children, simple workers, conquered eternal prestige, esteem, and honour’. And after a timid fighting verse, it ends by proclaiming, ‘Long live work and peace!’”

 

“Duty before life, he wrote in flames!”

There is a difference to be noted here. Costa Rica is vastly different from the countries around it. The nation remembers the wars, the battles. Not only are they progressive and hospitable, the way the country has maintained a stable democracy is a thing of marvel – it even abolished its army a few decades back post a civil war. Anything for the betterment of the land and the people in it. The nation is brimming with honest and strong citizens, who work for their country and view the glass as half full, all the while looking to progress.

The same goes for its football team.

Lucha por tu tierra! (Fight for your land!)

Ever since they qualified for the World Cup 2014, the 23-man squad had not stopped working.

“We love the group. The braver the bull, the better the bullfight.”

The task ahead did not haunt Coach Pinto. For six months, the team had been rigorously preparing and the players were put on personal training programs to get them fit for the biggest challenge of their lives.

It was not Pinto’s first time either, who had been sacked as the coach of the national team before. A man who has faced failure before is wiser, he is ready. The team and the coach were determined. It would have been easy to blame any losses and a group-stage exit on the tough opponents – but it is not the Costa Rican culture to make excuses, is it?

The players landed in Brazil and went out to the Estadio Castelao stadium, ready to face a Suarez-led team that were one of the dark horses of the tournament.

90 minutes later and the scoreline read 1-3. Costa Rica knocked in three past the Uruguayans and took all three points, forcing 31 other teams to take notice. Jumping fans, raucous players and the clear message on Pinto’s face – “We did not come here to be your fodder. We came here to fight.”

The next game against Italy was a test of a different sort. The Los Ticos were up against a national team as proud of their heritage as they themselves were, a team that was known for its defence and its ability to grind out results.

In this encounter, the Costa Ricans proved that although their country did not have an army, their team could very well defend – a Bryan Ruiz goal proved to be the difference in the game. The might of Italy had no answer for the heart of Central America.

90 minutes up. Absolute scenes in Brazil as the excitement, bewilderment and shock on the faces of the victors was visible for all to see. It was a moment as beautiful as the sun setting on the Costa Rican horizon. Pinto’s face beamed bright and the players could not quite believe what they had just done.

Two games, two former world champions defeated.

The team fought for their country till the last whistle. Just like 200 years ago, they had finally fought off the Spanish dictators to be free; it was the people they played for, the joy of victory indeed as majestic as it was unprecedented. Even though they had qualified for the last 16 before, this time, they had done it at the expense of two of the big guns.

Next on the list were England, a team that had to win in order to have a chance to advance. Looking at the game, you would think it was England who had already qualified and not Costa Rica – a goalless draw ensured that the former finished the group as toppers.

England and Italy crashed out; both having won one game combined, while Costa Rica won two and drew one, finishing at top of the group. A triumph in Brazil for a country whose people worshipped football. The passion that the fans exuded was otherworldly; one can understand how the country keeps surprising everyone and continues to develop despite the turbulence that it faces on a daily basis – it is the people that make the nation.

The amazing Costa Rican journey continued as they moved on to face former European champions, Greece in the Round of 16. It was Bryan Ruiz who found the back of the net again, but calamity struck a few minutes later as Oscar Duarte was sent off for a rash challenge. For almost half an hour, a resilient 10-man team kept the Greeks at bay, until Sokratis Papastathopolous became only the second man to score against Navas in open play that tournament. He did so in the 91st minute, and it was on to extra time.

Throughout this tournament, Costa Rica had faced a variety of challenges. This Round of 16 encounter was no different. But their resilience paid dividends and Keylor Navas’ heroics in the penalty shootout booked them a place in the quarterfinals. It was a feat no other team in Central American history had even come close to.

Within weeks, Costa Rica went from being fodder to being World Cup quarter finalists. In 120 minutes of football against a Netherlands team who had put four past Spain in the group stages, the defence again stood solid. Alas, this time, penalties saw the Dutch emerge victorious, and the run came to a halt even as millions across the world stood to appreciate, and applaud the team that had laid their heart out on the field.

“Among everything we deserve to be called good players. That’s why we should be happy.” The coach’s tone was humble, but his face proud.

“For the region it’s huge and for Costa Rica it has an impact economically, socially and sports-wise,” said the midfielder Celso Borges. “We can grow on many levels. This will be one of the key moments in Costa Rica’s football history.

“We were all working for six months. There’s no magic to it. We just put a lot of heart into it,” said Borges.

Heart and skill, isn’t that what the beautiful game is about?

For a team ranked 31 in the world before the World Cup began, for a team with limited resources, top eight where they were undefeated in normal time was an inspiring journey. Not only did interest in Central American football skyrocket due to that one campaign, but the players themselves got better opportunities to play for some top European clubs.

Keylor Navas earned a move to Real Madrid post the World Cup, and the impossible task to replace Iker Casillas seems a thing of history now with the keeper recently lifting his third consecutive Champions League title. The Costa Rica squad participating in this year’s World Cup has more players playing in Europe than any other squad in their history.

As Costa Rica now look towards this edition of the World Cup, the squad must put in the same effort, the same drive that led them to glory last time. There is no cheat code for success, no shortcut. If you ever doubt that, you need only look at the road that this team has taken – behind every movement, there is a process that took years to perfect. And as long as the desire to represent the nation does not go away, you can bet that Costa Rican football shall only get better and better.

 

Taha Memon

20 year old who likes everything black and white - especially football. Liverpool fan, aspiring journalist, comic enthusiast, and a TV show buff.