How did Costa Rica survive the Group of Death?
Many people wrote Costa Rica off when they were drawn with Italy, Uruguay and England but not.
Many people wrote Costa Rica off when they were drawn with Italy, Uruguay and England but the Ticos have been one of the stories of this World Cup and have qualified from Group D. Here's why they have made it.
They bought into Jorge Luis Pinto's defensive game plan
La Sele coach Jorge Luis Pinto called his team's defence tactically "perfect" in the 1-0 victory over Italy. He loved the way the team shackled Italy's veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who had picked apart England in a near-flawless performance in his previous game. Pirlo is a player you don't stop, but just hope to contain. That's what the Ticos' back line did throughout the match by cutting off passing lanes and forcing players besides Pirlo to try to outfox the Costa Rica defence. They couldn't. Pinto received his validation.
This team believed in his tactics long before the media and fans ever did. Critics felt the Colombian coach had made a mistake by forcing a defensive 5-4-1 formation on a squad with dynamic attack options but he stayed true to his ideals and it has paid off. As assistant coach Paulo Wanchope said recently, the coaching staff knew they had players who could score against any team in the world -- the key was having a defence that could complement them and kick-start a forceful counter attack.
The 61-year-old Colombian coach, who never played professionally, obsesses over the game and loves trying to identify ways to choke an opponent's strengths -- he claimed to have been studying Pirlo since 2006 for example. This is his second attempt at coaching Costa Rica's national team and he has succeeded this time by installing a disciplined, harassing defence that is more than the sum of its parts. The hard work has paid off with the stunning defeats of Uruguay and Italy.
Joel Campbell lived up to hype
Campbell said before the tournament that he dreamt about how he'd score against Uruguay but it'd be surprising if even he imagined his World Cup campaign going this well. He calmly powered in Costa Rica's first goal of the World Cup to equalise against Uruguay early in the second half -- a goal that spurred a momentum shift in the Ticos' 3-1 victory.
Campbell then contributed a gorgeous assist for the third goal and drew seven fouls in his dismantling of the Uruguayan defence. He constantly pestered Italy's back line as well, and should have won a penalty after a blatant foul in the box by Italy's Giorgio Chiellini. No matter. A few moments later, Campbell's deep pass to Junior Diaz kicked off the sequence that led to Bryan Ruiz's historic header.
His potential has been known for years. With his World Cup showing, it looks like he'll finally get a chance to break into the line-up with Arsenal, the Premier League club he signed for in 2011. Campbell, the team's youngest player, will celebrate his 22nd birthday on Thursday. They'll be little time to party with the Ticos still in Brazil, preparing for their first knockout round match in 24 years. That's the improbable gift Campbell has earned.
They haven't wasted big opportunities
Would Costa Rica's situation be different if Luis Suarez had played in the Uruguay match? Certainly La Sele will feel fortunate they never faced the Liverpool striker after seeing him devastate England. However, this isn't a dismissal of what La Sele accomplished against Uruguay. The Ticos should be hailed for the way they took advantage of the situation. They saw a weakened squad and pounced on the opportunity to take the three points in the World Cup opener. After falling behind to a goal in the first half, Pinto altered his tactics slightly and cranked up the attack. He asked his players to storm Uruguay's defence with their speed and they duly obliged.
The minnows of Group D also faced enormous pressure to hold off four-time World Cup winners Italy but found a way. Late match defensive lapses in Brazil have crushed a few teams (See: U.S. vs. Portugal; Iran vs. Argentina and Ecuador vs. Switzerland) but this defence is resolute in the face of pressure. La Sele can grab a lead and hold on with a vice-like grip and will fear no side.
Matt Levin / ESPN
Italy 0-1 Costa Rica
World Cup 2014