Nobody’s Whipping Boys: A Short History of Costa Rica at the World Cup

When Costa Rica would be drawn alongside three former world champions in the group stages of this year’s World Cup in Brazil, nobody would have given them much hope. Representatives of a small country in Central America, the team known as Los Ticos would be there just to make up the numbers in what would be billed as a three-way tussle between England, Italy and Uruguay.

How the world would be mistaken.

In their opening game, the side coached by Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto would come back from a goal behind to destroy a sorry Uruguay 3-1, but even then the result would be seen by the watching world as a major shock. OK, they had beaten a Uruguay side without Luis Suárez – but surely they couldn’t keep it up against four-time winners Italy.

Keep it up they did. Against a dour Italian side Pinto’s team would grab the only goal of the game to take them clear at the top of the group on six points, and a final and far more relaxed goalless draw against a second-string England would take them into the second phase and a winnable tie against Group C runners-up Greece.

The Costa Ricans would take the lead in the second half against the Greeks, but a second yellow card for influential center-back Óscar Duarte and their conceding a last minute equalizer looked to have put an end to their chances of reaching the last eight. Not a bit of it. With the Greeks looking complacent despite having a one man advantage, the game would go to the lottery of the penalty shootout – where Pinto’s team would produce five perfect penalties to seal the deal and book a place in the last eight for the first time in their history.

So while the likes of Spain, Italy and England tumbled out of the tournament, Los Ticos would remain.

The truth is that Costa Rica’s place in the last eight isn’t that much of a shock. Perpetually written off and described as “minnows” and “whipping boys,” they have time and again punched above their weight on the big stage.

Unlike many other Latin American countries, there has never been any obvious showboating from the Costa Ricans. While regional rivals Mexico have been continually plagued over the years with squabbles and internal strife, there has for a long time been a sense of continuity in Costa Rica. Part of this may have to do with the mentality of the Costa Rican people themselves: located in a region that has become known for its instability, this nation of just over four million people has known nothing but peace for over sixty years. The country doesn’t even have an army.

Compared to many of their more volatile neighbors, football in Costa Rica appears to have mirrored the country’s politics, and a cursory look at the key players in their current coaching team reveals a list of players who would become legends in their own country and well known abroad. Supporting coach Pinto are two such legends in Paulo Wanchope and Luis Marín, while their goalkeeping coach for the best part of two decades has been Luis Gabelo Conejo, who would be one of the heroes of Los Ticos’ first appearance at the World Cup in 1990.

It would be at Italia ’90 where Costa Rica would burst onto the world stage. Grouped together with perennial favorites Brazil, a hopeful Scotland and always reliable Sweden, nobody would give them much of a chance to come away with anything – least of all the Scots, who would once again go into a World Cup high on hope and enthusiasm.

Costa Rica’s opening game would pit them against Andy Roxborough’s side, and after ninety minutes of football in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris the tournament would be turned on its head. ‘Keeper Conejo would deny a busy but profligate Scottish side, and four minutes into the second half Héctor Marchena would make a run into the Scottish box, feeding Claudio Jara, whose cute backheel would find Juan Cayasso. Coolly as you like, the tall number fourteen would dink the ball over the advancing Jim Leighton to give the outsiders the lead with their first-ever goal on the world stage. A new national hero had been made.

Los Ticos would see things out to claim the two points, and would also not look out of place against group favorites Brazil where just a Müller strike after thirty-three minutes would separate the two sides.

Needing just a draw in their final group game against the Swedes, the team coached by the globe-trotting Yugoslav Bora Milutinović would find themselves behind at half-time, but some fifteen minutes from time that man Cayasso’s in-swinging free-kick into the box would be met by captain Róger Flores. Completely unmarked, the skipper would give the ball into the left hand side of the net across and past ‘keeper Thomas Ravelli, and the Central Americans would be back in the driving seat.

With Scotland losing to Brazil at the same time, Sweden would have to chase the game in search of at least two goals, and Ravelli’s punt up the field would find a Costa Rican head. As the man in yellow shirts desperately tried to close him down, substitute Hernán Medford would draw Ravelli out before slotting the ball past him and into the bottom left hand corner.

With a scarcely believable four points from their three games, Milutinović’s men would finish second behind Brazil, setting up a second phase meeting with Czechoslovakia.

Los Ticos would hold their own for over an hour in Bari, but in the end would succumb to a clinical and ultimately more professional Czech team as the rosy-cheeked and wonderfully mulleted Tomáš Skuhravý completed an excellent hat-trick. One could argue that the 4-1 result had flattered the Czechs, and the Central American side would bow out of the tournament with a distinct sense of achievement and pride.

Costa Rica would have to wait twelve years for their next appearance at the World Cup finals, but in 2002 they would qualify as the leading team in the CONCACAF region. A dominant final round would see them finish ahead of traditional rivals Mexico and the United States, and en route to the finals they would secure their first away win in Mexico as El Tri were beaten 2-1.

The finals themselves would see Alexandre Guimarães’ side eliminated in the group phase, but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. They would be grouped once more with favorites Brazil and a tough Turkey side, but with the inclusion of first time finalists China they would for once not be seen as the group outsiders. A 2-0 win over the Chinese would get the campaign off to a good start, and a hard-fought 1-1 draw with the Turks would keep them in contention going into the final pair of matches.

The Costa Ricans would hold the upper hand with four points against the Turks’ one and a three goal difference advantage, but in their final game would be facing the Brazilians while Turkey would be playing the winless Chinese. Turkey would storm into a two goal lead inside ten minutes, while the Brazilians would be 2-0 up inside the first fifteen. As things stood Turkey were a goal up on the Costa Ricans in the group standings, and when Brazil scored a third seven minutes before half-time it would look all over bar the shouting. But rather than lie down Guimarães’ men would hit back immediately and score a second eleven minutes into the second half, edging themselves back in front of the Turks on goals scored.

Throwing everything and the kitchen sink against their more illustrious opponents the central Americans would come close to an equalizer, but two more Brazilian goals in the space of as many minutes after the hour mark and a late third for the Turks would settle the issue. Los Ticos would be going home early, but could once again hold their heads up high. They would be the only team to score more than one goal against the eventual champions, and with the Turks also progressing to the last four and finishing in third place, one must surely have wondered how Costa Rica would have done had they been placed in a more manageable group.

Four years later in Germany Costa Rica would see their worst World Cup campaign as they suffered three straight defeats, but even then they would play their part. Perhaps their most significant contribution would be in the opening game against the hosts where star striker Wanchope would score twice in a pulsating encounter in Munich where they would go down 4-2, but a 3-0 defeat against Ecuador would eliminate them with a game to spare. The final game against Poland would be for the privilege of avoiding the wooden spoon, and despite taking the lead, Guimarães’s side would fall to a 2-1 defeat.

A controversial playoff defeat against Uruguay would see the Costa Ricans narrowly miss out on the party in South Africa in 2010, but a return to form in the 2014 qualifying campaign would see them book their place in Brazil with minimum fuss. Of course, we know what happened next.

Having reached the last eight after their shootout win over the Greeks in Recife, Los Ticos will be able to stand proud irrespective of the result in their quarter-final against the high-flying Dutch. But there is no way they will be going into the game as also-rans. They have once again proved that they are nobody’s whipping boys, and should they maintain their form and reach the unprecedented height of the last four, nobody should be in the slightest bit surprised.