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Countdown to Rio: Don’t Count the Costa Ricans Out . . .

The moment England were pulled out of the hat for Group D, everyone – Hodgson and Dyke included – dubbed the draw a disaster. Tortuous 1000 mile coach trips and an opening game in the humid 40° C Amazon. Not to mention the impregnable Italians and unstoppable Uruguay. But a Costa Rican crusade? Surely not.

It’s true to say the onslaught of Pirlo and Ballotelli, followed by Suarez and Cavani, send more shivers down the spine than Bryan Oviedo. And assuming Costa Rica gift three points apiece to our two main rivals, England’s final group game – versus a country eleven times smaller than ours – will surely be a must win. But that doesn’t make it a will win.

‘Los Ticos’ in fact qualified for their fourth World Cup appearance with considerable ease compared to us. The CONCACAF system includes four rounds, culminating in a six team group – thus no San Marinoesque minnows remained by the time Costa Rica played their final ten games. Instead they had to defeat the likes of USA and Mexico to finish second, seven points ahead of the latter. In the prelimaries they also put thirteen goals past Guyana!

The most successful Central American nation formed a team in 1921 along with the country’s ‘Primera Division’. Missing out on South Africa 2010 hit domestic football hard though, with some top flight clubs’ attendances dropping to a few thousand. There is a general hope however that this summer’s football fever will again grip the Rich Coasts’ public and rejuvenate the country’s number one sport.

I spoke to Artavia Edgar Jimenez of A.D.Cartelita, who finished seventh in the Primera last season and have won the title once back in 1961. When asked about the potential benefits from Costa Rica’s World Cup appearance, Artavia describes : “the most positive effect for our club is economic in nature, the fact that FIFA gives money to federations for participation in global tournaments”.

In 2010, $420 million was divided between the 32 nations – including $8 million for each first round loser plus $1 million each for preparation costs. Jimenez added : “The federation (FCFCR) should spread this among the clubs. Our club will also receive more money via increased attendances, ticket and merchandise sales for at least a full season”.

With many of Costa Rica’s regular squad playing in their own domestic league, there is a possibility more fans will turn up in order to see first hand the stars who feature for the national side against some of the world’s best players. Carmelita’s 1993 stadium in Santa Barbara – the Estadio Carlos Alvarado – is one of the largest in the league, but may well reach near or full capacity in the aftermath of Rio 2014. At the moment the stands resemble an empty coliseum during league games, so a drastic impulse is due.

In terms of on-field legacy, Artavia was less optimistic : “The club’s level will remain the same despite one-off events or situations such as the World Cup. They are not really effective on our current players to take these skills. And any young outstanding talent they pass to the big teams when recognised”.

This is a huge problem for clubs of smaller Latin American nations. Even when great players emerge, they normally head for Europe to play in top level leagues and of course the UEFA Champions League. As well as Oviedo, several other Costa Ricans are dotted across Spain, France, Germany and Scandinavia, as well as four or five in the American MLS.

Following humiliation against Chile at Wembley, the FA promptly arranged a trio of friendlies versus Peru, Ecuador and Honduras in preparation for Group D. The attacking mentality and inch-perfect passing of the Chileans somewhat startled England after a qualifying campaign consisting mostly of physical East Europeans. Artavia Edgar emphasised Costa Rica’s “very picturesque football”.

“We do not believe that just passing around will win the game alone, but are convinced in playing well to win. Our style reflects us as a free and sovereign nation, our freedom-loving nature, a country without an army and very happy”.

If the draw seemed cruel on England, Costa Ricans must surely have felt doomed to zero points against three countries who have spent 18 years as world champions between them. But the Carmelitan reminds us not to count our chickens : “We have nothing to lose but everything to gain. Assuming we are not considered as a power in the world, and everyone expects thrashings towards Costa Rica, they can be proved wrong”.

Costa Rica’s best performance so far came in their 1990 debut where they finished second in Group C – defeating Scotland and Sweden, and only losing by a goal to mighty Brazil. Czechoslovakia then proved a hurdle too much in the round of sixteen.

“We have a very football conscious population” concludes Jimenez, “world football is another important aspect for us. We are in the group of death, and it is a great opportunity to learn”.

Scanning through some highlights of ‘La Sele’s qualifying campaign, there seems a lot for England to worry about. The Costa Ricans have a key mix of strength and skill, pace and passing, not to mention some lethal finishing – particularly a couple of blasted volleys against Jamaica and USA. They’ve got some massive centre backs who also seem to grab a goal per game from corners!

That being said, it is still difficult to make a case for Costa Rica finishing anything other than bottom of Group D, but they still might throw a spanner in the works for one of the three ‘giants’. Whoever drops points to Costa Rica may well be consigned to third place.

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