Ticos bow out with heads held high
SALVADOR, Brazil -- Their dream of a berth in the World Cup semifinals came to an abrupt end on the cruel roulette wheel of penalty kicks. But believe it or not, the overriding emotion for Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto and his unbeatable team is not sadness. It's not pride, either -- though there is plenty of that.
Following the Ticos' tournament-ending shootout loss to the Netherlands on Saturday at Arena Fonte Nova -- a result that will officially go down as a scoreless tie -- what Pinto and his players feel more than anything else is happiness.
"We're hurt, but we feel happy nevertheless," Pinto, the miracle worker, said after it was over. "We have achieved wonderful things. We have played against great powerhouses of football, and we have not been beaten, even if we have to leave the tournament now. The Netherlands are a very strong team, an internationally renowned team, but still we played them at an even level. We feel happy and thankful."
The Ticos were thankful for the opportunity, for the chance to become the first team from North or Central America to reach the final four of the World Cup since 1930 -- 31 years before CONCACAF, the region's governing body, was even formed. But the way they played, the way they defended as one in each of their five games, conceded just one goal from the run of play and beat former champions Italy and Uruguay (and tied another, England, along the way), it should be us who are thanking them.
Costa Rica were a treat to watch at this World Cup. They were almost impossible to breach, but they didn't just sit back. Sure, the Dutch had the better of the play on Saturday and were kept out by the post and the crossbar (twice) along the way. But Pinto's men had their moments too. There was the penalty shout that fell on deaf ears in the first extra-time period. Then, in the second, Marco Urena had the game on his foot, only to see his low shot beaten away by Jasper Cillessen.
"We were here to play football," Pinto said. "Sometimes we were able to play, sometimes we weren't, but that's normal. Still, I think we have presented a very positive and very dignified image of Costa Rican football."
Did they ever.
The Ticos became the darlings of the tournament during their stay in Brazil. They were already heroes at home after advancing beyond the round of 16 for the first time in their nation's history. After the match, a reporter who prefaced his question to the coach by congratulating him "on behalf of all Costa Ricans" relayed the message that people back home were still celebrating, even -- especially -- following their elimination.
Dutch coach Louis van Gaal came away impressed with how difficult Los Ticos had made things for his side. It wasn't what he was expecting.
"I felt that the quality of Costa Rica was less than of Mexico and Chile," Van Gaal said, referring to two teams the Oranje beat earlier in the competition. "I thought I could hurt them by using three strikers. But hurting them, we didn't see that bit, did we? We weren't able to score a goal."
Part of the reason for that was the play of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who was outstanding against the Dutch, as he was throughout the competition. "For me, he's the best in the World Cup," said striker Bryan Ruiz, one of two Ticos who had his spot kick saved by Tim Krul, whom Van Gaal inserted for Cillessen before the shootout.
To lose on penalties is harsh, and it's particularly agonizing for the players who fail to convert. But instead of being crushed, even Ruiz seemed able to take a measured view of what had transpired for him and his teammates over the past three weeks.
"I'm very happy about what we achieved as a team and about what I achieved personally," said Ruiz, who finished with two goals. "Of course we wanted to stay in the World Cup. It's pretty sad to go out on the penalty spot, but it happens."
Besides, he knows they are about to be received like champions back home.
"I'm expecting a great celebration when we arrive," he said. "Costa Rica is sad for our defeat but proud of everything we have done. There's going to be a lot of parties."
ESPN Brasil's Francisco De Laurentiis contributed reporting.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.