“How do you like us now?” ran the headline on the Tico Times, the English language newspaper based in Costa Rica, after the little Central American nation with a population of just 4.5m stunned Italy with a 1-0 victory to qualify for the knockout stages, eliminate England and leave observers aghast.

It was an apt question, given that the nation given scant chance of even winning a game in Brazil, with pre-tournament odds of 2,500-1, had just beaten the fancied Italians to qualify with a game to spare, a match against England in which they can afford to spark up their cigars. Yes, fancy that?

La Nación proclaimed Costa Rica as “The Giant of the Group of Death” whose qualification “caused madness” on the streets after schools closed down to allow children to join in the celebrations in the capital, San José, where the president, Luis Guillermo Solís – who had predicted a 1-0 win before the game – bounded out on foot to La Hispanidad roundabout, to join the party with the celebrating Ticos.

“History,” said La Republica. “The Sele are flying! Costa Rica surprises the world!” The introduction read: “With hearts in hands, tears springing from deep and pride at its finest, the national team, with this header, not only beat Italy but qualified for the knockout stages. The great Italy, this champion full of medals and wins.”

The streets of downtown San José were blocked by crowds of fans wearing the team’s red jersey and who were jumping and shouting: “Yes, we did it! Yes, we did it.” Some fans were already anticipating a long run in the competition.

Jorge Loria, 35, a chef who headed to Fuente de la Hispanidad to join fellow revelers, said the happiness from seeing his team defeat Uruguay and now Italy felt so big that he thought Costa Rica could go all the way. “We will be world champions!” Loria said. “That’s how happy I feel.”

It was an optimistic view, but one national newspaper, Al Día, echoed in its headline, calling La Sele’s heroes “Unlimited” after the huge victory: “Now look to sneak into the last eight,” ran a subhead.

This buoyant nation, recently voted the world’s happiest, hardly needs a lift. But after qualifying for the World Cup knockout stages for only the second time in its history – and against all odds – it has one. And who knows where this tidal wave of goodwill might take them.