As the teams were drawn for Group D of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil last month one team would have been looking at their opposition in awe. Costa Rica, the plucky Central American nation, will need to conjure up some giant-killing to creep into the Second Round, but if history is anything to go by it will be a goal they relish. The nation’s production of some outstanding talent recently is not by accident; despite periods of years in the wilderness there have been historical patches of brilliance with sustainability their biggest foe.
Football has been etched in the country’s traditions since the early twentieth century when in 1921 the Costa Rican Football Federation was formed. An appearance at the Independence Centenary Games marked the international team’s debut as they swept aside El Salvador 7-0 and later won the competition with an equally impressive 6-0 demolition of Guatemala. For the first twenty years of existence, understandably, the national team would remain largely playing opposition nations on the continents of South and North America.
With the 1940s came an era of productivity that would see emerging young talent develop, forming the foundations of a legendary team to be labelled ‘The Gold Shorties’. Part of the CONCACAF zone of FIFA, they would consistently perform well in region throughout the 50s and 60s, only outmuscled by powerhouse Mexico. The rewards were three World Cup qualifying runner-up finishes in a row from 1958 to 1966 but a place to compete at the world’s biggest tournament eluded them.
However when the CONCACAF tournament was formed in 1963 they won at the first time of asking, undefeated in six games, scoring 14 goals and conceding just 2 on their way to the trophy. Third place in 1965, champions in 1969 and third again in 1971 reinforced their reputation locally.
With strength in depth the team was powered by a handful of stars including their pacey forward Errol Daniels. For a five foot ten inch man he packed an enormous punch when shooting and surprised opponents with his sudden burst of speed. In a short international career from 1965 to 1970 he bagged eight goals in 19 games for the ‘Ticos’.
At the heart of the defence Mario Cordero or ‘Catato’ was consistently commended for his strength, bravery and leadership by example. For a defender he had an eye for goal and as a true gentleman on and off the pitch he is remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen the country has produced.
As the 70s progressed and a generation of talent retired, the fortunes of the national team evaporated. Even in their CONCACAF region their attempts to make the final qualifying rounds for the World Cup were futile. The 80s were not much better until they once again came into contention for final qualifying in 1986, finishing third behind Canada and Honduras in the CONCACAF Championship – a tournament also acting as World Cup qualifying for the region.
This would prove to be a pivotal moment leading to their third CONCACAF title in 1989, edging out the United States on goal difference and gaining entry to football’s greatest tournament for the first time in 1990 in Italy. With no expectations going into the championship the team sat as rank outsiders to survive Group C up against Sweden, Scotland and Brazil.
What transpired was their greatest achievement in history, beating Scotland 1-0, losing narrowly to Brazil by the same score and coming from behind to beat Sweden 2-1 in the final minutes, Hernán Medford scoring to become an instant national treasure. They would go on to finish second in the Group behind Brazil and were soundly beaten 4-1 by Czechoslovakia in the Second Round.
Journeyman striker Medford was at the peak of his powers in 1990, plying his club trade for Dinamo Zagreb and subsequently for Austria’s Rapid Wien, Spain’s Rayo Vallecano and Italy’s Foggia, and would eventually manage the national team from 2006-2008.
The victories gained at the World Cup would not have been possible without the heroics of their legendary goalkeeper Luis Gabelo Conejo, also voted the best Goalkeeper at the finals. His shot stopping in their wins against Scotland and Sweden ensured Costa Rica’s close victories and a subsequent club move to Spain’s top flight La Liga. No doubt their 4-1 defeat in the Second Round would have been different had Conejo not been unable to play due to injury.
Most fans would like to forget the next poor attempts at World Cup qualification as they missed out on USA 1994 and France 1998 but they came back in style, coasting to the top of their CONCACAF pool losing just once on the way to finishing five points ahead of both Mexico and the United States to reach South Korea/Japan 2002. Once again the underdogs this time, they narrowly missed out on second spot in Group C to Turkey by goal difference.
The lanky cult hero Paulo Wanchope, with 45 goals in 73 games for his country, played in 2002 but would have a bigger role in the World Cup at Germany 2006 scoring two goals against the hosts in their opening game. A 4-2 loss was followed by two more defeats and put Costa Rica on an early flight home.
Failing to reach South Africa 2010, the past few years have in contrast been some of the most exciting in their history culminating in the qualification for Brazil 2014 alongside England, Italy and Uruguay. Confidence is high and rightly so with the team buoyant from the talent of PSV’s on-loan attacker Bryan Ruiz, captain of the side and a genuine goal-scoring threat.
Ruiz may provide the ammunition and support to 21 year-old Arsenal striker Joel Campbell, a precocious talent currently on loan at Greece’s Olympiacos, his goal-scoring ratio steadily improving with age. Furthermore Everton’s 23 year-old left-back Bryan Oviedo is raising his profile in the English Premier League and the tricky Christian Bolaños is dribbling his way around opponents for F.C. Copenhagen, delivering crosses for his national team strikers to finish. Add to that the goal scoring exploits of Swedish club AIK’s Celso Borges there is a team capable of entertaining.
Having a solid goalkeeper is not something Costa Rica are unfamiliar with and Keylor Navas, their number one stopper, will have a key role in Brazil if they are to survive the Group stage. Coincidentally Navas like his compatriot and Costa Rican hero Luis Conejo, signed for Albacete in Spain and has since moved on to La Liga’s Levante.
The domestic league in Costa Rica takes on a distinctly South American flavour with the season played over two sections, the Apertura and Clausura (opening and closing). Twelve teams compete in the Primera División de Costa Rica each year with the Segunda División below. Three teams have comprehensively dominated the championship over history and by 2012 Deportivo Saprissa had taken 29 titles with 15 second finishes, LD Alajuelense with 28 with 20 runners-up and CS Herediano with 23 and 16 respectively.
Formed in 1921 in conjunction with the Costa Rican Football Federation, the first two decades were dominated by Herediano, winning 10 titles with La Libertad (4), Cartagines (3) and Aajuelense (2) sharing the remainder. In the early years Herediano set the benchmark for Costa Rican teams and were early pioneers of international exhibition tours, travelling to play several games in Jamaica and El Salvador. In 1932 they were expected to be the equivalent of shooting practice against the Argentinian national team but remarkably won 3-1.
The 40s took a similar path with the majority of titles shared between Alajuelense, Herediano and La Libertad but the 50s would herald the rise of Deportivo Saprissa. Their first trophy came in 1952 and with four championships in the decade their dominance grew as they took six more titles in the 60s.
Formed in 1932 Saprissa only joined the top flight in 1949 and are paraded as the country’s most traditional and successful club, but also the most successful in the CONCACAF region due to their three Champions League wins. The league was set alight for a short period from 1964 to 1972 by the previously mentioned Errol Daniels, scoring 197 goals in 168 games when his career was tragically cut short by injury in his late twenties.
Saprissa dominated the 70s with another six titles to Herediano’s two and Alajuelense’s three and the predictability continued in the 80s and 90s several trophies being shared between the three except on one occasion. This period would see Alajuelense hot on Saprissa’s tail and Herediano gradually fall behind.
Formed by a group of friends in 1919 Alajuelense have earned a reputation for playing attractive, attacking football and at the 2002 World Cup provided nine players for the national team. Powered in the 2000s by the prolific all-time national team top scorer Rolando Fonseca, their proudest moment came in 2000 when they were ranked by the IFFHS the 27th best club team in the world, a feat even Saprissa have not surpassed.
Since the millennium the pendulum has swung from Alajuelense to Saprissa and back again with just four titles won by other teams; two by Herediano in 2012 and 2013, ending a title drought of 19 years. With Saprissa’s last win in 2010 and the trophy sitting in Herediano’s cabinet the three-way tussle looks set to continue for some time to come.
With a national team rising in the rankings from 69th in the world in 2010 to 31st last year, the future looks promising and the chances of beating their 1990 heroics next year in Brazil are as good as they have ever been. The domestic league may continue to be predictable but no one will be complaining should they keep producing and nurturing the calibre of home-grown players seen in the last few years, even if they eventually depart for Europe.
As Costa Ricans begin to now appear in arguably the greatest league in the world, the English Premier League, expect to see more European scouts making the trip to Central America very soon.