Costa Rica’s rapid ascent from humble origins has been emulated by England’s World Cup opponents Panama, but ‘Los Ticos’ now boast far loftier ambitions than their Central American neighbours.
Thursday’s Elland Road friendly is designed to familiarise Gareth Southgate’s players with the style of opposition they will face in their second group game against World Cup debutants Panama. Yet unlike Panama, Costa Rica are not heading to Russia merely for the novel experience. They have their sights firmly set on reaching the knockout stages again.
The five surviving members from England’s 2014 squad should know Costa Rica’s quality all too well, even if their meeting in the final group game four years ago was already a dead-rubber.
In Brazil, Costa Rica were given scant consideration as potential qualifiers for the second round. It seemed merely a case of two out of three from the heavyweight trio of England, Uruguay and Italy in Group D.
But Costa Rica came from behind to stun Uruguay in their opening group game, before a 1-0 victory over Italy guaranteed them a place in the last 16. Taking on Roy Hodgson’s wounded and humbled side was little more than a warm-down exercise. An uninspiring 0-0 draw was all they needed to take their place as unlikely group winners.
Reaching the quarter-finals – where they were knocked out on penalties by Holland – transformed perceptions and ambitions of a side, who now rival Mexico as the top team in the Concacaf region.
“Over the years, Costa Rica have proved that we’re a good team. When we meet a team like Uruguay, Italy or Spain, we always perform well and we’ve beaten some of the best teams in the world,” says defender Francisco Calvo.
“It’s no coincidence that we reached the quarter-finals at the last World Cup.
“We’ve set ourselves a really high bar to reach, but the world sees us differently now. Hopefully we can continue on the same path in Russia.”
A 1-0 victory over Scotland in 1990 – a result which still prompts cold sweats north of the border – was Costa Rica’s breakout footballing moment, in their maiden World Cup appearance.
But it has been the last 15 years where the country has begun to make giant strides after qualifying for four of the last five World Cups and twice finishing third at the Gold Cup.
Progress has coincided with several prominent players plying their trade in La Liga and the Premier League – the likes of Keylor Navas, Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell.
“The team has grown a lot recently and what people saw 10 years ago, even, is not like now. I think we’re now a better team than either Mexico or the USA,” says centre-half Kendall Waston, who clinched Costa Rica’s qualification with a stoppage time leveller against Honduras.
“It’s helped that there are many players playing outside of Costa Rica – in Europe and in the MLS. Those players have been able to get more experience from other countries and then brought it to the national team.”
Inevitably, the meeting with Brazil, in St Petersburg, has dominated the back pages in Costa Rica, yet Calvo is more concerned by the outcome of the other two group games, which are likely to determine their hopes of reaching the knockout stages for a second tournament in a row.
“Everybody is talking about Brazil, but I think Serbia and Switzerland are going to be hard for us too,” says the captain of MLS outfit Minnesota United.
“Brazil is Brazil. They have Neymar, [Philippe] Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus. That game is going to be important for us, but the biggest game for us is going to be against Serbia. In a small tournament like this, the first game is always important.”
With a view to beating the Serbians and the Swiss, Thursday’s meeting is as beneficial for Costa Rica’s preparations, as it is for England. They have spent the past fortnight fine-tuning their preparations against European opposition after friendly wins over Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Waston adds: “It’s great for us because it’s a taste of what we can expect. England are one of the toughest teams from around the world, so hopefully we can produce a good performance.
“It’s a very tough group. Serbia only lost once in the qualifiers. The first game is so important. If we win it, it opens it up for us.”
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