Ticos courageous in defeat
For 120 minutes, Costa Rica did everything they could to stay in the match. It was ugly at times. It was uneventful during long stretches. But to hold off one of the most talented squads in the world, the defensive-minded Ticos did exactly what was necessary to give themselves a chance to pull off one more shocker.
The World Cup's giant killers fell just short against the Netherlands in their first-ever quarterfinal, losing on penalties 4-3 in Salvador, Brazil, on Saturday. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal's trash-talking super-sub Tim Krul seemed to be the only element the Ticos were unprepared for in the entire tournament. That would be enough to undo the underdogs.
La Sele leave Brazil as the most accomplished Costa Rica squad in the country's history. They exceeded all expectations. La Sele topped a group with three former World Cup champions, outlasted the Greeks in the last 16 and almost upended the Dutch, coming just a couple of penalty kicks short of the semifinals after a scoreless match.
The Ticos battled hard and smartly to prevent the Netherlands from landing a knockout punch. They used defensive traps to force the Dutch into 13 offside calls. The Netherlands had eight total in all their previous World Cup matches. Johnny Acosta -- seemingly La Sele's fourth option at centre-back on Saturday with Oscar Duarte (red card), Roy Miller (injury) and Heiner Mora (injury) all out -- fit right in with the rest of Costa Rica's well-disciplined five-man back line.
When the defence faltered, outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas was there to make more spectacular saves while collecting his third consecutive man of the match award. And on the few opportunities where Navas couldn't get to a ball, he found help elsewhere. Once thanks to perfect positioning by midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda and a few times from the goalpost.
Unfortunately for Costa Rica (and fans looking for a more lively competition), their attack seemed nonexistent throughout the match. The squad did not even get a shot on goal until added extra time. Costa Rica's first corner came with approximately five minutes left to play during a sequence in which they actually had a few chances to take a last-minute lead.
By that time La Sele's best offensive player, Joel Campbell, had long been subbed off the pitch. And with the Netherlands dominating possession, penalties felt like the best chance for another La Sele upset.
Costa Rica survived so long by keeping the Dutch off the scoreboard despite superstar Arjen Robben burning Costa Rica all day with his speed.
Costa Rica's manager, Jorge Luis Pinto, who worried before the match that Robben's notorious diving habit would cost his side a win, praised the Dutchman afterward for how difficult he made the match for the Ticos.
Pinto did take some jabs at FIFA's referees, complaining about the number of calls that went against his team. He felt Campbell should have received a penalty after taking a hard hit in the second half, noting that the referee failed to reward his players apparent penalties in previous matches against Greece and Italy. (The Italy penalty was particularly blatant, although the Ticos would end up scoring the game winner minutes later).
The Colombian coach's future with Costa Rica remains unknown, although it seems unlikely the 61-year-old will stick around after his historic coaching performance. His contract runs out soon, and it was rumored he'd be the next coach of Venezuela a couple of weeks before the World Cup began. More offers might soon be coming after what he did in Brazil.
No matter who's in charge, the Ticos have a strong base to build on for the future.
Campbell and Tejeda, the team's youngest players, are both 22. Duarte, Celso Gamboa, Cristian Gamboa and unsung defensive star Giancarlo Gonzalez are four more starters age 26 or younger. Navas is 27 and is expected to soon sign with a major European club, experience that will only help him reach greater heights after his strong showing with Spain's Levante and then in the World Cup.
The team also will have back 24-year-old Bryan Oviedo, possibly Costa Rica's most talented player, who missed the World Cup with a broken leg.
Talk of what's next can wait a little bit. The Costa Rica national team arrive home on Tuesday, and La Sele will receive a hero's welcome on their return. After the Dutch victory, Pinto praised his team for playing without fear throughout the tournament. The Ticos conceded only two goals in Brazil, and outplayed ex-champions Uruguay, Italy and England -- before at last succumbing to the best football-playing country to have never won a World Cup.
"We leave heartbroken from the World Cup because of what happened in penalties, but at the same we're proud, joyful with what this group of players did," Pinto said. "They elevated the name of the country."
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.