Costa Rica's recent rise has created a new regional rival for Mexico
MEXICO CITY -- The Estadio Azteca earned its reputation as a fortress for Mexico's national team by way of sheer physical imposition. The cavernous building is surrounded by stands that appear to rise straight up into the sky, filled to the brim with fans on game day.
Coupled with Mexico City's high altitude and notorious smog, the Azteca literally takes the opposition's breath away. These conditions combined to provide El Tri with a near-guaranteed win against opposition for the whole of the 20th century in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying play. Which is why, when Costa Rica stunned Mexico in 2001 with the famed Aztecazo, the result sent shockwaves around the world.
"After the Aztecazo, they take us more seriously. It's a great rivalry," said Costa Rica defender Roy Miller in an interview with ESPN.
Miller -- who plays for MLS side Portland Timbers -- has amassed 59 caps with Costa Rica since 2005, including a handful of direct confrontations with the Mexicans. In recent years, Mexico has turned some of their attention to the Central Americans of late, shifting focus from their historic conflict with the United States.
The budding Mexico-Costa Rica Clasico is one that will be rekindled on Thursday when both teams face off in Monterrey for an international friendly.
"Any game against them is going to be intense," said midfielder Rodney Wallace, who also plies his trade in MLS with NYCFC, in an interview with ESPN. "We have to respect them, but we know we have the quality to beat them. They have to give us the same respect."
Both Wallace and Miller were absent from the national team list this time around, but both have ample experience facing off against Mexico over the years. After their historic win at the Azteca, Mexico went undefeated against Los Ticos for twelve years, until their 2013 contest in San Jose, when Costa Rica won 2-1 and very nearly left them out of the 2014 World Cup -- a game Wallace witnessed firsthand.
"That was unforgettable," Wallace said. "Any time we can beat them, it's special."
Once more, Mexico has reacted to the loss by winning the most recent fixtures, albeit with a level of difficulty. Their 2015 meeting in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals required a dubious penalty call in Mexico's favor to tip the balance. Their most recent match, a World Cup qualifier in San Jose, ended 1-1.
However, perhaps the touchiest issue between the two rivals is one that doesn't involve a direct confrontation on the pitch.
"Making the [quarterfinals] was an amazing experience," said Miller, referring to Costa Rica's storybook run in the 2014 World Cup. "It's historic, not just for Costa Rica but for the region, too."
Mexico's obsession with getting out of the World Cup's round-of-16 and into the quarterfinals is well documented. Since bowing out in penalties against Bulgaria in the 1994 tournament in the United States, the Mexican squad has suffered seven consecutive eliminations in the competition's first knockout round.
In 2014, Costa Rica qualified to its fourth-ever World Cup and first since 2006. Drawn into the "Group of Death" with Uruguay, Italy and England, Los Ticos grabbed seven points and moved on. A win against Greece in penalty kicks set up a quarterfinal showdown with the Netherlands, the very team that had eliminated Mexico in the prior round. That match was again decided from the spot -- this time, the result was not in Costa Rica's favor.
Recent salvos between both nations have included other issues, such as player development. While Mexico has begun to export a somewhat steady stream of players into the European market, Costa Rica has perhaps the most noteworthy CONCACAF player abroad -- Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
"The Costa Rican player has shown he's ready for any challenge, and [European teams] see that we have a good level of play," said Miller, who played in Norway and Sweden from 2005 to 2009.
After shining at the 2014 World Cup, both Navas and Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa were pegged to make jumps to larger clubs. The Costa Rican moved from Levante to Real Madrid and became the starter. Ochoa moved from Ajaccio to Malaga, making just 11 league appearances in three years before moving on to Granada. Navas will be present and expected to start on Thursday against Mexico, while Ochoa was left off the list this time around.
The latest episode in this rivalry involves managers. Costa Rica's new boss is Gustavo Matosas, the former Uruguay international who has spent the brunt of his coaching career in Mexico. Matosas led Club Leon to two Liga MX titles and Club America to the CONCACAF Champions League crown.
Though Costa Rica has just five wins in their last 40 matches against Mexico, the historical significance of what they've accomplished against Mexico -- and on the international stage in general - has beckoned respect for the Central Americans.
"I think beating Mexico is the most important thing to [Costa Rica]," said Miller. "We've raised our level significantly. They have a lot of prestige and great players, so it's a great rivalry. Every time we play them, the difference between each team is less. We're not there yet, but we're getting closer."