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Mar 24, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Costa Rica


Group D | England | Uruguay | Italy


Team DNA

Costa Rica have traditionally offered up an attack-heavy style that has combined athleticism with plenty of technical ability, but historically, there has been almost too much of an emphasis on attack, with the team preferring to win 5-4 than 1-0. It is in this area that the impact of manager Jorge Luis Pinto has been felt the most.

Costa Rica looked like a much more disciplined side during qualifying, and their qualification for Brazil has helped ease the pain of their heartbreaking 2010 qualifying campaign that saw them fall to Uruguay in a playoff.

Pinto settled upon a three-man back line late in qualifying, but if this year's friendlies are anything to go by, there is a distinct chance he'll revert to a four-man alignment for the World Cup. A group that includes Italy, England and Uruguay is daunting, so look for Costa Rica to play intelligently but avoid a bunker mentality.

In attack, the Ticos are reliant on Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz to provide creativity and Alvaro Saborio to get the goals. The wild card is Joel Campbell, a forward on the books of Arsenal who has been on loan at Olympiakos. Campbell provides the kind of speed that opponents must respect, especially on the counter.

Starting scenario

History 

After enduring decades of futility, Costa Rica finally qualified for their first World Cup in 1990 and reached the round of 16 in their debut. They didn't return to the Cup until 2002, and the last time Costa Rica qualified (2006), they were eliminated without recording a point.

How they reached Brazil

Ironically, it was the semifinal round -- and not the final round Hexagonal -- that caused Costa Rica the most anxiety during qualifying. Heading into the penultimate game at El Salvador, a victory by the Cuscatlecos would have eliminated Costa Rica. But the Ticos were able to secure a critical 1-0 win thanks to a Jose Miguel Cubero goal. The Ticos then clinched passage into the Hexagonal with a resounding 7-0 win against Guyana.

The Hex mostly ran to form for Costa Rica as they finished second behind the United States. The Ticos swept their home matches, including a resounding 3-1 win against the U.S. that effectively clinched qualification while providing revenge for the 1-0 defeat earlier in the round that took place in a snowstorm. A 1-1 draw at Jamaica officially booked the Ticos' ticket to Brazil. Ruiz's three goals paced Costa Rica during the final round, with Celso Borges and Saborio each scoring twice.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Given Costa Rica's long-standing rivalry with Mexico and the United States, any matches against those two teams always take on added significance. The chance of Costa Rica meeting one of those teams is minute, however. The earliest the Ticos could face Mexico is in the quarterfinals, while the semis mark the earliest they could face the Americans. Such a scenario would require one of Costa Rica and the U.S. winning its group, which is borderline unthinkable.

There does remain one potential matchup that would be fraught with intrigue. If Costa Rica were to finish second in Group D and Colombia prevailed in Group C, then a matchup with the Cafeteros -- who once employed native son Pinto as their manager -- would be in store. That would no doubt be an emotional experience for the Costa Rica manager.

Bryan Ruiz's three goals during the final round of qualifying helped Costa Rica book their trip to the World Cup.
Bryan Ruiz's three goals during the final round of qualifying helped Costa Rica book their trip to the World Cup.

Most important player

Ruiz is the man who makes the Costa Rica attack tick, and, given the difficulty of the group, the Ticos' ability to create chances will largely fall on the Fulham man. His ability to find gaps between the defensive and midfield lines makes it difficult for opponents to track him, and he's shown a nose for the goal as well.

Ruiz fell out of favor at Fulham this season but had more success during a loan stint at PSV Eindhoven, recording five goals and two assists in 15 appearances.

If it's up to Ruiz to create chances, it will be up to Saborio to finish them off. The Real Salt Lake forward was hampered by injuries during qualifying but looks to be healthy now.

The Ticos will also need goalkeeper Keylor Navas to come up big, and, fortunately for Costa Rica, he is coming off a fine season with La Liga side Levante.

Definition of success

The only time Costa Rica have reached the knockout rounds came in 1990. On that occasion, the Ticos finished second in Group C behind Brazil but dispatched Scotland and Sweden along the way before falling to Czechoslovakia 4-1 in the round of 16.

But if Costa Rica can somehow navigate its way out of Group D against a trio that has won a combined seven World Cups, then it will go down as the greatest footballing achievement in the country's history. No doubt, that will take some doing.

The Ticos are considered huge underdogs in this group, and they could quite easily lose all three games. If Costa Rica simply plays well and grabs a point or two, it should be considered a success. It would certainly be an improvement on their World Cup showing in 2006.

How far will Costa Rica go?

Costa Rica will do well to secure any points at all. It looks like three games and out for the Ticos.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Kasey Keller

Costa Rica pride themselves on stingy defense, so this isn't a team that is going to get crushed despite their opponents' impressive résumés. But, in the end, they're just not going to get enough goal-scoring chances to make up for the ones they give up. Their opponents' fans will be thinking Costa Rica is an easy win for their teams, and they'll probably be right.

If Pinto decides to play four at the back in an attempt to keep possession in more advanced positions, he could allow the likes of Luis Suarez or Mario Balotelli too much space. Looks like a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

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