In a group loaded with star strikers, young Joel Campbell transcended them all on Saturday. In doing so, his Ticos delivered the biggest shock of the tournament -- a 3-1 win over Uruguay in Fortaleza, Brazil.
The 21-year-old tormented the Uruguayan defense throughout the match. After Uruguay took the early 1-0 lead on a penalty, Campbell retaliated minutes later with a long-distance screamer that ended up just wide of the net.
In the 54th minute, he juked Uruguay goalie Fernando Muslera to equalize the match, and honored his expectant girlfriend by stuffing the ball under his shirt and dancing around as if he were pregnant. He continued to make a mockery of Uruguay's defense the rest of the way. His tricky pass to Marco Ureña in the 84th minute led to the game-sealing goal.
Costa Rica were more than just a one-man wrecking crew. Oscar Duarte's diving header at the 57th minute was the prettiest goal of the match. The Ticos back line held strong, and goalie Keylor Navas made a few crucial saves. Still, Campbell, FIFA's Man of the Match, is the player the football world can't stop raving about this Saturday.
His potential seemed overshadowed when Costa Rica fell into a group with established superstars like Italy's Mario Balotelli, England's Wayne Rooney and Uruguay's Luis Suarez (who missed the match with a knee injury). Campbell's abilities have now put on him on world football's radar after a brilliant World Cup debut in Brazil and Costa Rica are no longer seen as the group's lightweights anymore.
This was La Sele's first win at the World Cup since knocking off China in the group stage in 2002. Costa Rica has only made it out of the group stage once. In 1990, the Ticos, in their World Cup debut, defeated imposing European squads Scotland and Sweden before falling to Czechoslovakia in the Round of 16.
Campbell has been a star-in-the-making for some time. He shined on Costa Rica's Under-17 and Under-20 teams, and was signed by English Premier League club Arsenal in 2011. While he's yet to play for the Gunners, he's performed well out on loan in various European leagues and in friendlies and qualifiers with La Sele. As a member of Greek squad Olimpiakos, he earned worldwide kudos after a wonder goal against Manchester United in a Champions League match in February.
Yes, apart form the Champions League goal, his most discussed highlight in the past year was a hideous flop in a qualifier against the U.S. in October (he actually scored a brilliant breakaway goal minutes earlier; the play ended up forgotten in the aftermath of the dive). But Campbell proved how tough he could be against the Uruguayans. While victimizing La Celeste's defense, he took repeated abuse from the opposition, even drawing a red card in the final minutes of the match.
Coach Jorge Luis Pinto's team maintains a heavy focus on defense, and so whether Costa Rica could score was always a major question mark. The concerns intensified after top striker Álvaro Saborío broke a bone in his foot a few weeks before the World Cup, and the offense proceeded to suffer without him in team's World Cup tune-up matches.
Campbell, who wears no. 9 as an homage to Saborío, put the unease to rest against Uruguay. The gifted forward has said he believes a strong performance in Brazil can define his future and finally bring him to Arsenal. And now Costa Rica has vanquished the first of three former World Cup champions that the Ticos will face in the group. The next comes Friday against Italy in Recife, where Campbell and company will arrive, all of a sudden, in command of Group D.