Photo: DAMIR SAGOLJ / REUTERS
They clobbered Uruguay. They manhandled Italy. They shut down England. That’s three world champs in a row. Then they held off the Greeks with just ten men. And even if it was only a scheduling coincidence, they were the last of the North and Central American teams to remain standing in the quarterfinals. Yes, the Ticos played grandly. They kept many of our hopes alive for three weeks as we watched Honduras and Spain get crushed, the US flare and then sputter, impassioned Mexico suffer a sad comeback defeat, hard-hitting Chile slam into the goalposts, and Colombia finally get out-muscled by Brazil. More than just talent, it seemed to be sheer will that allowed Costa Rica to hold out against the high-scoring Dutch this weekend, winning over their fans on the way: the crowds in Salvador were heavily with the Ticos, usually booing when Robben even touched leather and roaring when, though infrequently, Costa Rica managed to mount an attack. They held the Dutch scoreless longer than even magical Memo Ochoa of Mexico could, and only ended up losing in penalties.
Though this may read like an elegy, celebrating the past success and wishing Costa Rica well four years down the road, we should pause before singing any requiems: let’s take another minute to celebrate their success. The Ticos stood taller than any other CONCACAF team in 2014 and were inches from pulling off what would have been one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. It’s not that they team played so beautifully against Holland (3 attempts on goal and only 25% possession compared to Holland’s 18 attempts, three hard cross bars, and 75%) but Costa Rica (after playing a bruising 120 minutes against Greece earlier in the week) pieced together a few good chances and occasionally dredged up some verve, bare-bones battling their way to a 0-0 tie through a full two hours.
Maybe the most flavorfully-named team of the tournament, with the literary sounding Celso Borges and Christian Bolaños, plus Yeltsin Tejeda and, one of the great keepers of the tournament, Keylor Navas, there are a handful of Costa Rican players the world is going to remember. The Ticos’ success came from their terrific team defense, winning the so-dubbed “Group of Death,” where they were initially ranked at the bottom, by letting only a single ball into their net in group play, and then only one more in the rest of the tournament. With nothing but giants left in the semis (Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Holland) those of us hoping for a dark horse or an underdog to slip through have plenty to be pleased about with Costa Rica’s performance in 2014.
A quick (and very hopeful) prediction: Ticos get to the semis (at least) in Russia 2018.