What is their footballing history?
It all kicked off properly in 1921 when their Football Federation was formed and the national team made their debut at September’s Independence Centenary Games in Guatemala. They won the tournament, beating El Salvador 7-0 and then Guatemala 6-0 in the final. Central America’s most successful team, they’ve suffered from being in the same Fifa region as Mexico, 25 times their population, but had strong teams through the 1940s (the legendary Gold Shorties), 50s and 60s. Their form dipped throughout the 70s and 80s as their stars retired and other nations got stronger, but in June 2001 came possibly their finest hour prior to this World Cup: the legendary and inspirational Aztecazo when they beat Mexico 2-1 in the Estadio Azteca, where the Mexicans had never previously lost a World Cup qualifier, on their way to the 2002 tournament. Current Central American champions. Fifa ranking: 28 (highest: 17 in 2003).
What’s their tournament pedigree?
The only Central American team to play in four World Cups and also the first to win a game there, beating Scotland and Sweden at Italia 90 despite some of the squad being amateurs – though they were then knocked out by Czechoslovakia in the second round. In 2002 they faced Brazil, Turkey and China, missing out to the Turks for second spot only on goal difference. They fared badly in a strong group in 2006, losing to Germany, Ecuador and Poland. At Brazil 2014 they have become the first team from the Central America/Caribbean region to reach a quarter-final; they have never before met Holland in any form of football. Costa Rica have also competed a couple of times as invitees in the Copa América, reaching a quarter-final in 2001 where where they lost narrowly to Uruguay. Also competed without much success at the 1980 and 84 Olympics.
What’s their domestic scene like?
Though a small nation of just 4.5 million inhabitants they are considerably outdoing their neighbours such as Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Costa Rica is a nation obsessed with football, everywhere – however small – has a school, a church … and a football pitch. Being the most politically stable and modern country in the region has helped to encourage investment and ensured their top league, the Primera División, is easily the best-run in Central America. Also the most technically talented, it consists of 12 clubs that play two tournaments each year – the Apertura and Clausura, each consisting of a home-and-away league followed by a knockout stage for the top four. Winners of both competitions qualify for Concacaf’s Champions League. The country’s most successful teams are champions Deportivo Saprissa (who finished third in 2005’s Club World Cup in Japan after losing to Liverpool in the semi-finals), LD Alajuelense and CS Herediano.
Is there a Costa Rican style?
Whereas other Central American teams are influenced mostly by Mexico, Costa Rica takes inspiration more from Brazil and other South American countries, whose players and coaches have for decades left their mark on the Costa Rica league, attracted by its good reputation. The most ethnically diverse country in Central America, it has a good mixture of the physicality and athleticism of the Caribbean-style players with the more technical European skills of those of Spanish descent. Since the 1990 World Cup there has been a constant wave of players moving abroad and whereas other Central Americans move mostly to the Mexican league or MLS, Costa Ricans – who, unique to Central America, tend to speak good English – are more widely scattered, with Scandinavia an especially popular destination. These players bring back precious experience which all helps to develop Costa Rican football further.
Why are they doing so well at this World Cup?
Great credit must go to the Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, who has every player performing to his absolute maximum and who has forged a real family atmosphere with complete focus, togetherness and commitment from the whole squad. Pinto, who has a sports degree from Cologne University and is inspired by German discipline, has designed a system around his players that cleverly masks their deficiencies in defence. Though their three centre-backs are individually quite average, they form a solid unit, protected by two holding midfielders and an excellent goalkeeper in Keylor Navas, making a strong central block that is hard to break down. Each player is aware of his specific role in the team and when under pressure they are disciplined defensively, skilful enough to keep the ball and pick their moment to a launch a dangerous counterattack.
Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a football scout and executive and formerly the chief executive and sporting director at Monaco. He travels frequently to Costa Rica in search of talent and brought Celso Borges to Norwegian football in 2009