To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, blessed is the country that is not in need of heroes. Costa Rica is such a country. Without an army since 1948, this small Central American nation is an oasis of calm and a haven of transparent democracy and rule of law in a violent and tumultuous region. Where other nations’ national anthems speak of war, conquest, kings and queens, Costa Rica’s exalts ‘the simple farm hands’ and hails their nation as ‘gentle homeland! Mother of love!’. With unparalleled natural beauty, impressive human development and socioeconomic indicators which leave it as by far the happiest country in the world according to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica seems to be perhaps the luckiest nation on earth. So maybe the heroic performance of the Costa Rican team at this World Cup is simply the cherry on the cake. A taste of glory on the world stage for this tiny nation, a smattering of heroes richly deserved, if barely needed.
There was no expectation on the team going into this tournament. Drawn in a group with three former world champions in England, Italy and Uruguay, Costa Rica were barely expected to make a ripple. Ranked 28th in the world and given odds of 2000/1 to win the tournament and a huge 15/1 to merely escape their group they were framed by the media less as whipping boys than as a piñata to be smashed by the powerhouses they were competing against. These predictions could not have been further from the truth. Costa Rica put in inspired performances to deservedly beat both Uruguay and put in a controlled performance to effortlessly hold off England in a 0-0 draw to advance to the last 16 as group winners. However it was last night’s performance against Greece that was perhaps the most impressive. A disciplined performance off the ball, with the team’s high pressing and defensive line restricting the traditionally dour and deep Greeks to sporadic attacks and crafting chances from set pieces, laid the foundations for the Ticos to take the lead with an excellent finish from captain Bryan Ruiz. However it was after Oscar Duarte was sent off in the 65th minute that they truly showed their mettle. Despite succumbing to a cruel equaliser in the 90th minute they continued, cramp ridden and outnumbered, to put up a Spartan-esque resistance against the resurgent Greeks. Forcing the game to penalties was victory in itself and having earned the opportunity to save the game they took it with aplomb, taking five penalties, scoring all of them with the Greeks being thwarted by an astonishing save from goalkeeper Keylor Navas, flying to his right to palm away a perfectly struck penalty from Gekas to earn a famous victory and a first ever World Cup quarter final for his nation. Drenched in sweat after the game and on the verge of tears, Navas told reporters that what he and his teammates had achieved “was only a dream for us, a dream that became a reality, a dream that was dreamt by an entire country”.
As the cliché goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but unlike the impressive form of the Dutch, explained by Van Gaal’s tactic nous and the exemplary performance of the Chileans, desperately unlucky not to knock out Brazil, it appears that no one has attempted to offer any explanations as to the form of the hugely overachieving Costa Ricans. The truth is that, on paper, there is very little to suggest that they are anywhere near capable of achieving what they have. In Keylor Navas of Levante and soon, perhaps, of Athletico Madrid, they have a genuinely world class goalkeeper. Other than him the promising Joel Campbell of Arsenal, PSV’s intelligent and elegant Bryan Ruiz and the tireless Christian Bolaños, plying his trade with F.C Copenhagen have excelled themselves at this tournament but can hardly be described as the kind of players you would expect to drag a team to the last 8 of the World Cup. Their manager Jorge Luís Pinto is widely renowned in his native Colombia and throughout South America as an innovative and inventive tactician but with the highlights of his trophy cabinet being a Costa Rican title with Alajuelense in 2003 and a Colombian title with Cucuta Deportivo in 2006 he can hardly be described as having the kind of pedigree you’d expect from a top level international manager, which is what he has proved himself to be. Neither is it the advantages of the Brazilian weather with their two victories over Greece and Italy coming in Recife, where the comfortable humidity and temperatures in the mid 20s are far more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than the tropical climes of Costa Rica.
So what then can we owe Costa Rica’s fine form to? Certainly the high intensity pressing game and astounding fitness of the players, shown by their ability to resist the Greek onslaught with 10 men throughout extra time, can be considered a factor. So too perhaps can Uruguayan complacency in the first game of the group as well as the lack of Italian and English attacking imagination when faced with this tightly organised Costa Rican team. However what is most evident in this team is a huge amount of team spirit and self-belief, spearheaded by their manager Jorge Luís Pinto. Asked about his side’s prospects against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, opponents who will certainly not make the mistake of underestimating them, he said that “we will continue fighting. We will go on. We will see beautiful things. Rest assured that we will not get eliminated in the quarter finals”. However this is not a question that will have been asked by any of the tens of thousands of Costa Ricans who flooded the streets of the capital San José following the final whistle. This football mad nation of just 5 million people had no expectation of miracles coming into this tournament and whatever happens against the Netherlands they will return to Costa Rica as heroes. But this is exactly the point. The simple fact that their team have defied all expectations and delivered results beyond anyone’s wildest expectations will be enough. Costa Rica is not a nation that needs heroes, but this World Cup has given a team and a story that they can be justly proud of, and richly deserve.