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.

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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.”

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