Costa Rica put world on notice
RECIFE, Brazil -- As the final whistle blew, confirming Costa Rica's shock 1-0 triumph over four-time World Cup winners Italy, Tico defender Junior Diaz threw himself to the Arena Pernambuco turf and started crying.
"I think all the emotions come in my mind," he said in the postmatch mixed zone. "I remember starting [qualifying], working hard in Costa Rica, a long time with the team without my family, and also working with my club in Germany, many troubles. That feeling in the final moment of the game came all in one second. Then it was happy, proud, crying. All the emotions, this was the best in my career."
The win guaranteed Costa Rica a spot in the knockout rounds for the first time since 1990. At the postgame news conference, reports filtered in that the Costa Rican people had taken to the streets in celebration of what is undoubtedly the national team's finest hour, given that it has beaten two former World Cup champions in succession.
"I think maybe we hadn't realized how important this victory was right after the match," said captain Bryan Ruiz, who headed home the game's only goal thanks to an inch-perfect cross from Diaz. "Now we do."
While the emotion of the moment washed over Diaz and his Costa Rica teammates at the final whistle, manager Jorge Luis Pinto stepped aside, allowing himself a moment of quiet reflection. This is the same Pinto who was fired by Costa Rica just three games into the final-round Hexagonal for qualification to the 2006 World Cup, and who three years later was jettisoned by his native Colombia in the midst of another World Cup qualifying effort. Now, not only was he at the World Cup, but he was leading Costa Rica into the second round.
"I was thinking about many things," he said at his postmatch news conference. "I was thanking God for this possibility. I was thinking about all those who have helped us to achieve this result. It's not easy to play against Italy. They have wonderful players, they have a great structure, they [play] beautiful football."
But during this World Cup, Costa Rica have played some beautiful -- and highly effective -- football too. And it has led to questions, such as how a nation of just 4.5 million people has put two soccer superpowers to the sword.
Costa Rica have always been a country that punched above its weight, having now qualified for three of the past four World Cups. But now there is a greater concentration of national team players playing in Europe, and that accumulation of experience has helped raise the level of the entire national team program.
"They are used to playing against great players," said former Costa Rica international and current assistant coach Paulo Wanchope. "[Christian] Bolanos played in the Champions League. Now we have Joel Campbell, and [Keylor] Navas is the best goalkeeper in Spain. It's difficult to explain. As a team, we've done well. We knew that if we defend well, we had a chance to win."
It is that defensive discipline that separates this side from Tico teams of the past. It's what kept them in the match against Uruguay when the Ticos fell behind to Edinson Cavani's first-half penalty, and it was evident again Friday against Italy.
"I think our defense was perfect," said Pinto. "I don't want be too positive, but I think our defense was really good. They have played very well."
Much of that newfound resilience is down to Pinto. The Colombian's reputation is that of a strict disciplinarian, and he made no apologies for that style after the Italy win. But he has also made some critical changes to the national team program.
"We have changed many things," said Pinto. "We have changed our tactics. We have a different system now. We press much more, we have blocks, we press at the front. This is working very well.
"I have also changed our training. Our trainings are very demanding. We always train with the ball. They have been working with the ball all the time, in all training. Everything we do with the ball, and I think this has had a positive impact for us. This team is here because we have been able to learn. We have learned a lot, and this can make us feel proud and happy."
All of those aspects are important, but are nothing without the mental resolve to go with them. That area looked to be in tatters following the failed qualifying effort back in 2010, when a late goal by U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein snatched away an automatic qualifying spot from the Ticos in the last match of the Hexagonal.
Costa Rica then fell in a playoff 2-1 over two legs to eventual World Cup semifinalists Uruguay. But Pinto has managed make the necessary repairs to the team's psyche.
"I think that our attitude is really important," he said. "We train the team psychologically and mentally. You have to be at the top mentally as well. I think this has had a very good impact. I think that's our secret, this is the secret of our success, and I hope we will be able to go forward."
The group-stage finale against England is still left to play, and then a match in the round of 16. Winning a match at that stage would amount to a new horizon for Costa Rica. Pinto insists his team is ready.
"Of course we want to go farther in this competition," he said. "I have told my team we have to keep calm. We're here, and we want to stay."
The rest of the world is on notice.