Costa Rica's Navas saves the day
The Ticos were down to 10 players. The offense looked gassed. The defense seemed utterly vulnerable. And yet Greece could not finish off Costa Rica because keeper Keylor Navas stood like a mountain in goal.
He kept Costa Rica in the match as the rest of the team struggled through Recife's relentless humidity in the late stages against Greece. His save in penalty kicks cemented the best performance of his career and perhaps the top goalkeeping showcase of the tournament. Navas ruined the Greeks and Costa Rica advanced with their 1-1 (5-3 penalties) win.
The Ticos have reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time. They have a date with the Netherlands on Saturday in Salvador, where the small Central American nation will go for another stunner. The team's 27-year-old keeper entered the World Cup with a burgeoning reputation as one of football's next great goalkeepers. Statistically, Navas was the best keeper in Spain last season despite playing for Levante, a team that finished 10th overall in La Liga.
Rumors have circulated for months about which major club might give him his next contract. Now those rumors will now hit the stratosphere.
Navas said his strong play overseas prepared him well for Brazil. He had been stellar in the group stage, but the Ticos never needed him as much as they did against Greece. Following Sunday's feat, he arguably has surpassed Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa as the best goalie in Brazil.
Late in this match, especially in added extra time, it looked like Costa Rica would experience the same heartbreak as rival Mexico did. Ochoa's beautiful World Cup campaign ended earlier that day after El Tri gave up two goals in the final 15 minutes of the competition. But the shorthanded Ticos wouldn't allow the same result to pass for them.
Navas, a humble and deeply religious figure, looked fearless against Greece. When the moment for penalty kicks arrived, he ensured his incredible performance wouldn't be in vain. He deflected a try by Theofanis Gekas that gave Tico defender Michael Umaña the chance to clinch the victory. Umaña coolly knocked in his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Costa Rica's electrifying run would not die here. Navas had swatted his Ticos right into the quarterfinals.
La Sele faced 24 shots from a Greek offense that barely existed during the group stage. Greece reached the knockout stage with a minus-two goal differential, but managed 13 shots on target versus Costa Rica. Navas surrendered his body to the grass multiple times to make crucial saves. His best stop in regulation came at the 37th minute when Navas made a kick save on a ball from a hard-charging Dimitrios Salpingidis.
When Bryan Ruiz scored at the 52nd minute, the Ticos tried to make his goal hold up the same way it did in their 1-0 victory over Italy in the group stage. But once defender Oscar Duarte was sent off at the 66th minute after picking up his second yellow card, Costa Rica spent the rest of the match with their backs pinned to the wall.
Navas even picked up a yellow card for time-wasting (his first of the tournament, so yes, he'll be around for the Netherlands) as the Costa Rica clung to their lead, and then fought to stay alive once Greece equalized in second-half stoppage time.
The team looked drained in the extra period, incapable of mounting an attack. But a chance remained if La Sele could place the end of the match in the hands of Navas.
"We have so much confidence in Keylor in penalties," La Sele coach Jorge Luis Pinto said after the match as he praised his goalie's extraordinary evening in Recife.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos leveled the 91st minute. But Navas stayed resolute, making preposterous saves against Konstantinos Mitroglou at the 93rd minute and Gekas at the 108th minute. Both times the goalkeeper would injure himself in the process.
But the "man of the match" would keep on rising, and during PKs he'd deny Gekas for the only missed penalty of the night.
Fantastic goalkeeping had a central role in Costa Rica's first magical ride at the World Cup in 1990. Luis Conejo Gabelo propelled Costa Rica into the knockout round with his astonishing work in goal. Many considered Conejo the best goalie of the 1990 Italy tournament, despite his missing the team's round of 16 loss to Czechoslovakia with an injury.
Conejo wanted so badly for this 2014 Costa Rica team to eclipse the success of the fabled 1990 squad. As Costa Rica's current goalie coach, he was inside Arena Pernambuco for the match against Greece. From the sidelines, Conejo observed a myth-making effort from the young goalie who grew up idolizing him.
With Navas' stop of Gekas, the Ticos' set off a celebration in Costa Rica that would last through the night. The triumph, of course, will echo for much longer in La Sele lore.
"It's a dream," Navas said after it all was over. "It's a dream that the whole country had longed for."