England vs Costa Rica World Cup 2014: How 'The General' rallied his Costa Rican troops

Luis Pinto, manager of the tournament’s surprise package, has engendered a sense of injustice in the players – part of a population that usually has a relaxed outlook

Sao Paulo

There was a most extraordinary and captivating moment at the Costa Rica training base as the sun got high last Friday, which somehow encapsulated the phenomenon which they have proved to be. The temperature was getting uncomfortable – 24C or so – when they embarked on a game of what Brazil call footvolley; volleyball played only with the head and feet. The Brazilians play it two-a-side but there were six Costa Ricans on either end of the rigged up net for the session everyone wanted to belong to, with the concluding rally of 30 consecutive headers and volleys wrapping up with two spectacular overhead kicks.

LIVE: Follow today's games, including England v Costa Rica, Italy v Uruguay and events in Group C

You could only laugh at the screams of pleasure as that rally, at Santos FC’s Rei Pele training ground, told the story of Costa Rica. Memo to the England team who meet the little nation in Belo Horizonte today: this is supposed to be fun.

The really significant part of the session was the stamina, though. Costa Rica’s cerebral Colombian manager, Jorge Luis Pinto, has a degree in physical education and getting his players to run faster for longer is what absorbs him most. His choice of words was significant two days ago when Fifa had decided to drug test seven of his players after the world’s 28th-ranked nation had just beaten Italy, giving off its distinct suspicion that the team had cheated to achieve this. “People ask us how we can run as much as we did.” Pinto replied. “Well, it’s because we’re Costa Ricans.”

This most academic and conservative man, with his heavy emphasis on discipline, physical rigour and tactical order is known as “The General” in San Jose. He does not go in for friendship with his players and is even less partial to journalists. Muy terco (“very stern”) is the reply that keeps coming back from Costa Rican journalists when you ask them to define him. But the fruits of his work as an old-fashioned trainer were never more evident than in the last 20 minutes of the nation’s win over Italy in Recife, barely 24 hours before that footvolley game. Put simply, the Italians could no longer run. And the Costa Ricans could.

Of course, it takes more than endurance to beat two of the world’s top nine nations at the World Cup. Pinto has built his own formula around defence. He is one of those managers who has compensated for never having played the game at a professional level by absorbing himself with tactics and systems. His degree studies took him to Germany in the 1970s – he speaks fluent German – and it was from the football of that time and place that he built his conviction that success is built on defensive security. Costa Rica always have a five-man unit.

His alliance with the Costa Rican nation is a deeply improbable one, even though a deference for foreigners has always been at the heart of the Costa Rican mindset . This little nation of five million people is accustomed to a far more relaxed outlook than Pinto’s. At the core of the nation’s life is the ethos of Pura Vida, which translates roughly as “Love Life”. It is a peaceful land, with no military, sometimes described as “The Switzerland of the Americas” because of its disinclination ever to join military conflict. Yet here came Pinto demanding Germanic rigour.

 

There was a defining moment in the relationship, though: one which teaches us – and Roy Hodgson’s England – how setbacks can be an incredibly powerful force in football. It was March last year, two years after he had taken over. Pintos’s men had travelled to Denver, Colorado, to face Jürgen Klinsmann’s United States in a World Cup qualifier, only to find the place snow-bound. It was as austere a football environment as any could be for the boys from the Pacific and, with snow piled up around the stadium, the visitors asked that the game be cancelled. Klinsmann urged Fifa to let it proceed. He had his way and Costa Rica lost 1-0.

The Costa Ricans and their nation were incandescent. A sense of burning injustice took hold, and there was none of the Pura Vida spirit when the Americans travelled to the Pacific for the return. Their bus was pelted with eggs, the players performed with a new intensity, vengeance came with a sweet victory and the bond between manager and nation was transformed. Then Costa Rica went to the heat and stench of Mexico’s Azteca Stadium last October and won 2-1. Nobody goes to the Azteca and wins.

Don’t upset the Costa Ricans: that seemed to be the message. Before Uruguay encountered them in Fortaleza at the beginning of the World Cup, the national press in Montevideo had mocked the size of the challenge. Costa Povre (“Poor Costa”) ran one of the headlines. Well, yes it certainly does have its problems – a pitifully poor education system in some parts – but they were not going to be patronised. “We are rich Costa in our way,” says one member of the Costa Rica camp. “After the victory over Uruguay everyone is saying: “Where is your Costa Povre now?”

Their Rei Pele training base, on the coast an hour out of Sao Paulo, has certainly helped as well. It is the place where Pele, Carlos Alberto, Djalma Dias and Edu went to work each day for a generation and Pele’s locker – sealed for posterity since the day he retired from Santos in 1974 – is preserved in aspic to this day in the changing room Pinto’s players are using. “It is so beautiful for us to have this experience,” says midfielder Christian Bolanos. “Sometimes before training I just go in there on my own and touch the locker.”

But it is the quality of the football delivered up by this Central American phenomenon which has left England’s Football Association observers most surprised. There was a spell of keep-ball against Italy that Hodgson could only dream of and by every available account the quality of the nation’s domestic football scene is a hugely significant factor. It is the best domestic league in Central America, with well organised Under-14s, -15s, -16s and -17s at every club creating a level of organisation Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador can only dream of.

The stars are not exactly global football commodities. Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, who may well be rested today with the second round in mind, is slightly flakey, truth to tell, wandering around the camp in a baseball cap and not always appearing where he ought to be. They’re just as excited about their goalkeeper Keylor Navas, of Levante. 

“We may not have the big names and finances of countries like England but…you are seeing the outcome of meticulous planning and hard work,” Pinto said last night. “They start as favourites not because they are the better team but because their honour is on the line. The mother country of football cannot leave Brazil without any points.” 

 The truth is that he always fancied his chances. “We love the group,” Pinto said when his team drew Italy, Uruguay and England, last December. “The braver the bull, the better the bullfight.”

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower