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Next
 Posted by Matt Levin
Jul 6, 2014

Assessment: Costa Rican roller coaster

Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas is thankful and privileged for the opportunity to represent his country on the world's biggest stage.

Costa Rica exited the World Cup after upsetting the odds to make it to the quarterfinals, where the Netherlands ended their remarkable journey. ESPN FC blogger Matt Levin gives his verdict on the brighter points of the campaign as well as what went wrong.

One sentence: World Cup recap

Nobody gave Costa Rica a chance, but the Ticos conquered three former champions in the group stage, bested the Greeks in the last 16 and came achingly close to a spot in the semifinals in the country's best-ever World Cup performance.

Star man

Coming off a fantastic season with Spanish side Levante, many figured Keylor Navas had a chance to break out on the world's grandest stage. The 27-year-old goalkeeper ended up exceeding the high expectations in Brazil. He conceded just two goals in five matches -- one of which was a penalty -- to lead the Ticos to the quarterfinals for the first time.

With the help of a strong back line, Navas kept his team from falling behind in group stage matches against Uruguay, Italy and England. The keeper saved his best for the knockout rounds, though.

In those nervy matches against Greece and the Netherlands, Navas was called on to make vital saves again and again. In the Greece game, he survived a barrage of shots late in the day with his team down a man before the modest keeper carried Costa Rica into the next round by denying Theofanis Gekas in the penalty shootout. He held off the Dutch and their hoard of attacking stars as well. Navas rebuffed brilliant free kicks and point-blank blasts (while also receiving some key assistance from the goal post) to keep his team alive. Although the Netherlands managed to topple him at last in the quarterfinal shootout, Navas arguably departs as the tournament's best goalkeeper.

It would be a travesty if Keylor Navas was not selected as the World Cup's best goalkeeper.

Highlights

Costa Rica got off to a rough start in their tournament opener against Uruguay, falling behind thanks to a penalty in the opening half. Everything that happened after that just brought highlight after highlight for ecstatic La Sele fans. Striker Joel Campbell kicked off the party with the team's first goal, a rocket from inside the box early in the second half against Uruguay -- with his thumb-sucking celebration almost as memorable as the goal itself. Oscar Duarte then scored the best goal of the day with a diving header from a set piece, and Marco Ureña sealed the Ticos' first shock victory with a carefully placed shot from a difficult angle. Bryan Ruiz's game-winning header against Italy clinched Costa Rica's spot in the knockout round, while there weren't really any highlights in the scoreless tie with England.

All team assessments

Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
Finalists: Argentina
Winners: Germany

Then the Navas show really began, with the goalkeeper making a handful of remarkable saves against Greece in the round of 16, including saving the crucial shootout penalty that saw the Ticos surpass the achievements of the country's historic 1990 squad by making it to the quarterfinals. Taking the Dutch to a shootout in the last eight was no mean feat, though Jorge Luis Pinto's side could not repeat the five out of five spot-kicks trick they managed in the round of 16.

Equally as impressive was the jubilation back in Costa Rica that accompanied each upset. The images from the capital were especially memorable; tens of thousands of supporters sporting red would clog the streets of downtown San José and revel late into the night.

Low points

The Ticos tired out in the knockout rounds and played some grisly defensive football to survive Greece and the Netherlands for 120 minutes each. There were many complaints about Costa Rica's game plan seeming like a variation of the Greeks' safety-first football, but it was a necessary evil.

The worst moment, however, would come in the shootout against the Netherlands. Pinto was outsmarted by an opposing side's manager for the first time at the finals as Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal had saved reserve keeper Tim Krul for penalties. The towering, trash-talking shootout specialist appeared to get in the heads of La Sele as both Ruiz and Michael Umana missed their attempts. It was a brilliant gamble by the Dutch that paid off.

Tim Krul's two penalty shootout saves sent Costa Rica home.

Lessons learned

The much-maligned CONCACAF region now has three legitimate sides. The Ticos will need to start performing better at lesser tournaments, including the federation's Gold Cup, but there is no doubt that Costa Rica now belongs in the same breath as Mexico and the United States when talking about the region's potential. From Campbell to Navas, the Ticos have young talent to build around at both ends of the pitch.

Even though Pinto has likely coached his last meaningful game for Costa Rica, the players have gained invaluable experience from their giant-killing run in Brazil. A small Central American nation -- participating in only a fourth World Cup -- the Ticos looked fearless against sides that possessed long, more illustrious histories. Costa Rica never complained about their draw as they were placed in the first World Cup group ever to feature three former champions. The players believed in Pinto's tactics and a methodical defence, an approach that proved enough to send a country of less than 5 million into a month-long euphoria.

Matt Levin

Matthew Levin is a journalist based in San José, Costa Rica, where he has thrived on gallo pinto and fried plantains since 2010. He is a reporter and editor at The Tico Times and has had stories published by Reuters, The Global Post and The Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @mattlevin.