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U.S. tries to keep WC run alive

Five Aside

How the U.S. kept its Copa hopes alive

Five Aside
 By Matt Levin

Bitter end as Pinto exits Costa Rica

His departure was expected. Jorge Luis Pinto's name had been linked to other jobs. When Costa Rica fans thanked the coach and asked him to stay, Pinto always sounded appreciative and frequently teared up. But he never made any promises, saying at the team's homecoming parade: "I'll always carry this memory in my heart." The 61-year-old Colombian sounded like a man in search of a new challenge.

So it wasn't a surprise when Fedefut -- the Costa Rican Football Federation -- failed to re-sign Pinto after his historic World Cup run. But Pinto, whose Costa Rican team reached the quarterfinals in Brazil 2014, still had one more shock left for fans.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, he announced that contract talks had broken down not over money but due to betrayal.

Pinto said he'd been "sleeping with the enemy for a year and a half." He referred specifically to an assistant coach, who -- Pinto alleged -- went to Fedefut's president, Eduardo Li, and asked that the coach be fired because the Ticos would never qualify with him in charge. The main sticking point in negotiations was that Pinto couldn't make changes to his coaching staff.

At the news conference at Costa Rica national team headquarters -- while seated next to Li -- Pinto indicated a power struggle with Fedefut. He talked about how the organisation found him too demanding and obsessive, even as his unorthodox methods delivered significant victories.

A few minutes earlier, Li had thanked Pinto and said the door was always open to a return. By the end of the news conference, the door had closed and the gloves were off. In the parking lot of the headquarters, Li told reporters that Pinto had stabbed him in the back. He said Pinto had brought up issues that they had agreed not to make public.

Li then lit into the now ex-manager, saying Pinto wanted to fire not just one or two coaches but his entire staff and replace them with four or five colleagues from Colombia. Li said a majority of players, coaches and Fedefut workers had issues with the way Pinto treated them.

Pinto -- who kept insisting he wasn't trying to create a controversy -- had sparked a firestorm that ended on Thursday with Li, two Fedefut officials and the two assistant head coaches, Luis Marin and Paulo Wanchope, sharing Pinto horror stories on a late-night radio programme.

Wanchope, arguably the greatest player in Costa Rican history, received the brunt of Pinto's criticism. Fans suspected he was the one who had betrayed the head coach; Pinto later confirmed this to a Peruvian radio station, saying the deception "hurt his soul."

The former Derby County player went on an evening news show to deny the allegations. He called Pinto abusive and dishonest. Wanchope tried to appeal to nationalism, declaring that Costa Ricans would never be so disrespectful. By that point, the comment felt ironic -- not just due to Fedefut's Pinto-bashing media blitz (even the team psychologist and nutritionist have come out against him) -- but because fans already had made up their minds. They wanted Pinto. Across social media, they were ripping Fedefut officials and the coaching staff apart for what had occurred.

Jorge Luis Pinto became a hero to Costa Rica fans after the team's run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

When team captain Bryan Ruiz posted on Facebook that removing Pinto was a "very healthy" decision, Ticos supporters turned on him, too. Hundreds of negative comments quickly followed. Some said they'd rather see Ruiz -- who scored twice in Brazil -- go than Pinto. The most common refrain was that the players couldn't handle discipline and hard work, and that attitude had cost Costa Rica the coach who led them to World Cup glory.

The truth is Pinto's always had a notorious reputation for being difficult to work with, although nobody expected his tenure would end with him burning bridges like this.

"He has an obvious weakness: his personality," Ochoa Uribe, his first mentor, said in a 2006 interview with the daily El Pais. "I've seen him have furious rows with colleagues, referees and club officials."

He had received suspensions in the past for these altercations -- incidents that blemished a successful coaching career.

Still, Pinto managed a remarkable turnaround with the Costa Rican national team. When he was hired in 2011, many fans blasted the choice. He had failed in previous stints with Costa Rica in 2004-05 and Colombia in 2007-08. Followers critiqued his team's defensive play so much that Pinto once called in to a local radio station to shame a fan who had called his squad "inconsistent."

While many are now chastising his leadership, the players clearly bought into Pinto's game plan. The defence especially shined with their perfectly run offside traps as Costa Rica topped a World Cup group featuring Uruguay, Italy and England and then defeated Greece in penalty kicks in the round of 16. The Ticos then pushed the Netherlands to the limit in the quarterfinals before finally bowing out.

As Li acknowledged Thursday night, Pinto leaves after establishing himself as a hero to Costa Rica fans. That's what winning does. And that's why, even though these insults will linger, none of the current mudslinging will mean much if Pinto and Fedefut can keep winning as they head their separate ways.

In spite of the reputation that precedes him, Pinto will be one of the hottest names in coaching. He wants to stay in the Americas, and will likely end up the next manager of Venezuela, Peru or Ecuador. At the news conference, he stated Costa Rica was his preferred choice, but several reports tied Pinto to a South American side.

Li said Costa Rica will name a new coach in three months. Until then, Wanchope and Marin will lead the Ticos to the Central American Cup, which begins in September. There -- against Central America's worst squad, Nicaragua, and rising star Panama -- they can either appease angry fans with a win or exacerbate the situation with a loss.

All the while, Costa Rica will search out the successor to the national team's most successful coach. Li said Fedefut will hire a foreigner who brings a disciplined, tactically smart approach to the Ticos' talented squad.

In other words, Fedefut are looking for another Pinto -- albeit one with a less confrontational personality.