Netherlands v Costa Rica World Cup 2014: Tough-minded Jorge Luis Pinto stops Costa Rica thinking small
Uncompromising and academic coach has forged a team that has Los Ticos punching well above their weight
Cojones matter at this World Cup. The scale of Brazilian dismay at captain Thiago Silva’s request not to take a penalty against Chile last Saturday is hard to overstate, prompting much talk in the bars around here about the size of his pair. But it is a very different story in San Jose.
The joke in the Costa Rican capital is that the national team coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, has cojones the size of large eggs. The reason why is a little hard to unravel but is based on Pinto sharing a name with one of the central American nation’s most popular dishes, a mixture of rice and beans called gallo pinto. It is often served with eggs.
The improbable alliance between the studious little Colombian and his carefree adoptive nation seems to know no bounds. What started out as a wild adventure has developed into a journey of deadly serious intent, in which the players find that they are the talk of the football planet: a last eight team in the World Cup, facing the Netherlands tomorrow. The government back home is trying to find a way of bestowing Costa Rican citizenship on Pinto.
For a sense of what Sunday’s penalty shoot-out win over Greece meant to them, check out the YouTube film “El major dia de mi via” (“The best day of my life”), which every other Costa Rican seems to have seen, depicting agony building into delirium as Pinto’s boys put away their spot-kicks in Recife. The crowds captured in the streets at the short film’s finale cannot be less than 500,000, in a nation of only five million.
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It is a similar scrum at Vila Belmiro, the Santos FC stadium, where the press room was just not built to accommodate the numbers gathered to hear Pinto’s very serious “physical trainer” Erick Sanchez Alvarado provide a medical bulletin on the squad, before a couple of the players arrive to talk.
They are in no particular rush, appearing one by one about an hour after the appointed time, each lingering until there are no more questions left to ask. That’s Costa Rica for you. The country’s ethos is pura vida, which translates roughly as “love life”.
Outside on the turf once graced by Pele and Neymar, there is the latest evidence of the fitness instilled in the players by Pinto, who has a degree in physical education and studied in Germany and Brazil. The players are going at it hammer and tongs in their training session, though the mercury is rising down here by the coast. Yet the whole of Costa Rica is anxiously asking how much more fuel they have left to burn.
There are real fitness concerns. The World Cup is over for Roy Miller, one of the pillars of Pinto’s five-man defence, who sustained a foot injury in training this week. He will be badly missed, with Oscar Duarte’s dismissal against Greece meaning he is suspended against the Dutch. The week has been spent nursing Keylor Navas – the goalkeeper feted almost as much as Pinto back home – and the Arsenal striker Joel Campbell after their exertions on Sunday. “They are all tired but happy in their hearts,” reports Alvarado, bursting into what is uncommonly poetic talk for him.
Navas was a celebrity at home long before the events of the past three weeks. His place in the Levante team had made La Liga the focus of huge attention in Costa Rica. Bryan Ruiz’s progress with Fulham and PSV Eindhoven has also been closely followed and it was the winger who one of the best-informed students of the modern game, Everton’s manager Roberto Martinez, was quick to discuss when I told him before this tournament that a Costa Rican friend of mine was optimistic.
On the other hand, the unfeted Marco Urena is testament to Pinto’s bloody-minded determination not to be swayed by public opinion. There was heavy criticism of the coach’s decision to select the unknown striker, who plays for Kuban Krasnodar in Russia. Costa Ricans would rather have seen in the squad the popular Kendall Watson, a forward at Deportivo Saprissa, the colourful San Jose club side known as “The Purple Monster”. Watson was left at home and Urena did the job, scoring against Uruguay.
“Pinto doesn’t care so much about public opinion and he doesn’t care so much about us. He doesn’t try and flatter us,” says Eduardo Castillo, one of the sizeable Costa Rica media contingent out here. That might have something to do with the fact that he was sacked nine years ago after an unsuccessful first spell in charge of the team.
There does not seem to be much notion of Costa Rica departing from the Pinto script, which has been built on defensive rigour, with Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Umana considered to be more central to this than Campbell or Ruiz. Excluding last Sunday’s shoot-out, the defence has conceded only twice. “We are preparing some techniques to stop [Arjen] Robben and [Robin] Van Persie,” says Johnny Acosta, another member of that defence.
Yet there is a sense that this group of players would appreciate being taken a little more seriously. Sky Sports is in attendance at the press conference and asks Alvarado to compensate for his lack of English by raising a number of fingers to denote how many players carry injury concerns. He looks bewildered. It is Celso Borges, their eloquent, multilingual AIK Stockholm midfielder, who articulates that the squad are not here just for the Brazilian experience. “I don’t know if we fully understand what we are doing but… we are seeing new things as a team,” he says. “We didn’t come here to have a visit to Rio, lay on the beach or be tourists. We came here to compete.”
An indignation burns behind the relaxed veneer of the country. They bridle at the fact that they must play 25 qualifiers to reach a tournament such as this – far fewer than Mexico and the United States. “Those countries bring money in. We are small and we don’t so we’re not as attractive to Fifa,” says one source. Even before Costa Rica encounter the Dutch in Salvador, Pinto has helped put to bed Mexico’s notion that they are the strongest central American football nation by a mile. The Costa Ricans love him for that.
Talk is growing of Mexico snapping up Pinto. It is widely understood that he will move on after the tournament to a more lucrative club job there or in Colombia. His assistants, Paulo Wanchope and Luis Marin, may take on the role between them on a temporary basis. So the Cinderella nation are looking to seize what they can, while they can. They are nicknamed Los Ticos because of the nation’s habit of using the “ico” suffix to signify “small”. Small nation. Big ambition. They are more than they seem.
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