In a World Cup full of surprises, Costa Rica continue to provide some of the biggest shockers of all. A country of just over four million has advanced to their first ever quarterfinals and the story couldn’t have been written any better.
Heading into this year’s tournament, the Ticos had only made four previous appearances on soccer’s biggest stage and had reached the Round of 16 just once. Now, with perennial powers Netherlands awaiting on July 5, Costa Ricans must be dreaming the biggest of big dreams.
To this point, coach Jorge Luis Pinto has been masterful in his management of both strategy and personnel. Sunday’s contest revealed something even more valuable for Pinto and his team. After all was said and done, the Ticos were the tougher team.
Even after the dismissal of Oscar Duarte in the 66th minute, Costa Rica soldiered on playing a man down against an increasingly bold Greece side.
All appeared well for the Ticos after Bryan Ruiz’s well-placed strike in the 52nd minute gave Costa Rica a 1-0 lead. Less than 14 minutes later, Duarte’s red card changed momentum and the Greeks were only too happy to surge forward.
Enter Keylor Navas, arguably Costa Rica’s best player. The 27-year-old goaltender, who has become one of the breakout stars at this year’s World Cup, made save after save even as the Greeks pressured.
Sokraitis Papastathpoulos finally evened matters for Greece in the final seconds, leading to moments of doubt heading into overtime deadlocked at 1-1. This was Costa Rica after all, a team that had never been past the Round of 16 in their tournament history. Add to that the prospect of playing 30 more minutes a man down in the heat of Recife and prospects appeared dim.
Still, the Ticos carried on and behind Navas never faltered.
Sensing the desperation of their situation, Greece continued to pepper the Costa Rica defense with attacks during overtime. Even then, Costa Rica’s defensive corps of Giancarlo Gonzalez, Michael Umana, Junior Diaz, Cristian Gamboa and Johnny Acosta stood tall. It was therefore fitting that Umana’s perfectly struck penalty during the final shootout provided the winning margin for the Ticos.
Until now, Costa Rica’s victories over Uruguay and Italy along with the tie against England had been met with raised eye brows. To most, the Ticos represented a warm and fuzzy, feel-good story for this year’s tournament. That feel-good story has now become a full-fledged narrative of organization, toughness and just enough skill to put opponents away.
The Netherlands will still be favored to advance to yet another World Cup semifinal when the two sides meet in just over a week. The Ticos won’t mind, though. For them, this tournament has been a case study in self-belief. Four games have shown that Pinto’s team can win in a variety of ways. And regardless of the final outcome against the Dutch, Costa Rica will again bring their package of skill, organization and now toughness to the mix.
The Ticos wouldn’t have it any other way.