When the groups for the 2014 FIFA World Cup were announced, people from all over the world expected Costa Rica would finish at the bottom of the Group of Death.
But the Ticos had already served notice they might not be pushovers, having beaten both the powerhouses of North America at home en route to qualifying for Brazil 2014. Mexico were beaten 2-1 in San Jose and a 3-1 win against the United States soon followed in the capital.
Jorge Luis Pinto’s team made it to Brazil with two games to spare. Little nations like Costa Rica are seldom expected to qualify for showpiece tournaments such as this one – let alone stun the footballing world – and that meant that there was no pressure on the team to perform.
Because of the footballing history and pedigree that Italy, Uruguay and England bring to the competition, there would be a certain pressure exerted on them by their countries who expect them to perform on the world’s stage.
These teams are normally the strongest in the groups they’re placed in but that pressure can increase exponentially when they’re facing a team of similar strength so early in the tournament.
Costa Rica’s best finish at a World Cup was a Round of 16 finish at Italy 1990. They could therefore perhaps afford to go into Brazil 2014 in a more light-hearted frame of mind and a sunnier disposition than their opponents.
Because the three teams had similar expectations, similar objectives and a similar frame of mind, it was easy for Roy Hodgson, Oscar Tabarez and Cesare Prandelli to size each other’s teams up. Costa Rica were more of an unknown quantity who maybe weren’t expected to threaten. The three teams could therefore focus their energies on formulating strategies to beat each other.
That pressure obviously told on the pitch when Uruguay took on Costa Rica. The South Americans had expected to breeze past their northern opponents but things obviously didn’t go according to plan when Costa Rican equalised.
That meant the Uruguayans had to throw the script out the window, something they probably weren’t prepared for have prepared for, and missing their star Luis Suarez, only succeeded in cranking up the pressure on themselves and forcing Tabarez’s plans to go awry.
Ditto the case for Italy. After their embarrassing exit in South Africa four years ago, the Italians would’ve been under pressure to perform in Brazil. They’d started well with a win against England because the expectations the two teams were under would’ve cancelled each other out but once again, Costa Rica represented an unknown quantity. The Ticos could therefore have fun while playing their football, and players excel at what they do when they enjoy doing it.
On paper, Pinto’s team were arrayed in a 5-3-2 formation, designed to commit as many bodies as possible to defending in order to close down spaces and stop the opposition from playing. While attacking, however, the team switched to a 3-5-2 formation, with the fullbacks bombing forward to support the Costa Rican wingers. While defending, the Ticos retreated into a very compact 5-4-1 formation, with the same wingers helping out as auxiliary fullbacks.
The partnership that existed between Costa Rica’s wingers and their fullbacks was key to their victory. It meant that while attacking, the wide players were able to double team the opposition’s defenders, allowing the wingers to run into the box and drag defenders with them, thereby leaving the opposition in defensive disarray and creating spaces for supporting players to exploit.
Costa Rica’s formation was centred around intelligent movement by players. When their players didn’t have the ball, they’d press their opponents incessantly, forcing them to make mistakes and surrender possession.
That worked wonderfully against Italy, where even the great Andrea Pirlo could not get past the massed ranks of opposition players in front of him. As a result, the Italian forwards were starved of service and couldn’t muster enough chances to beat Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
In attack, the Costa Ricans made diagonal runs that were aimed at drawing out defenders. The move that led to their goal against Italy illustrates this perfectly. Christian Bolanos had Celso Borges making a run from midfield into the box; Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell were in the box by the time Bolanos had launched his cross towards Ruiz while Christian Gamboa and Junior Diaz provided support on the flanks.
This spread confusion among the Italians, who did not know which man to mark. Even Gianluigi Buffon, normally an epitome of calm, was unseated by Costa Rica’s approach. He expected the cross to reach Campbell and he’d realised too late that it was going to reach Ruiz and could not adjust in time.
While Costa Rica’s fullbacks spurred themselves on to complement their team’s offensive capabilities without reservation, their wingers tracked back to defend with unflinching commitment.
This also means that the Central Americans can alternate between playing the ball through the middle and crossing it into the box from the flanks.
Costa Rica ave it their all for their country with a passion and dedication that shows just how united they are as a team. It is that single-minded determination and team spirit that has seen Pinto’s plans come to fruition.
He has taught Costa Rica to ignore the pressures that they would’ve normally been beset by because there is no greater honour than playing for one’s country. While Italy, Uruguay and England do have the better players, little Costa Rica from Central America have shown that they have the better team.