Before the tournament started, many players spoke about their memories of the 1990 team and sharp desire to emulate its feat of reaching the second round. The defeat of Sweden that clinched that passage inspired a generation of players and after two dozen years, history has been repeated.
“I was only 1 at the time but everyone knows the story inside out,” said midfielder Oscar Duarte, whose header broke a 1-1 tie against Uruguay after La Celeste had taken the lead with a penalty kick. “I’ve also had coaches who played at that World Cup and told me about it. It’s a real motivation for us.
“They even made a film out of it back home. We picked up things from it that we could use on the field, and it helped us in a mental sense more than anything else. We just thought that if our predecessors could do it, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t do it.”
Midfielder Christian Bolanos said, “I was just a little boy at the time, only 6 years old, but I have very vivid memories of the celebrations and people going crazy in the streets. It makes me very, very happy to think that we are now causing that same kind of excitement.”
It’s not just the results that have made Costa Rica a popular underdog. The Ticos have played with flair and confidence. Joel Campbell sent a message to his employers at Arsenal -- for which he’s been under contract for three seasons but has yet to play for the first team while on loan, recently with Olympiakos -- by scoring a superb goal as the Ticos overwhelmed Uruguay. Fulham forward Bryan Ruiz headed the goal just before halftime that downed Italy, and by blanking England the Ticos emerged from group play with just one goal conceded.
Costa Rica is just the second Concacaf team to beat European and South American opposition in the same World Cup. In 2002, Mexico beat Croatia and Ecuador in the group phase.
Approximately 4,000 fans made the trip from Costa Rica and Brazilian fans have joined them, roaring with delight as the Ticos knocked off bitter rival Uruguay and then the Italians. With Costa Rica set to play its round of 16 game on Sunday in Recife, their ranks will certainly increase. And it was in Recife the Ticos beat Italy.
LA CELESTE RESPONDS. Uruguay came into the tournament with questions of age and prospects looked bleak after that 3-1 loss to Costa Rica left it with zero points and a minus-2 goal difference heading into showdowns with England and Italy.
But the return of Luis Suarez, who underwent knee surgery May 22 and sat out the Costa Rica game, sparked Uruguay. Facing many teammates and foes he sees regularly while playing for Liverpool, Suarez headed home a Edinson Cavani cross and pounced on a defensive error to score both goals in a 2-1 defeat that eliminated the English.
The victory left Uruguay tied with Italy in second place but with an inferior goal difference, which meant it needed to beat the defensive masters and keeper Gianluigi Buffon Tuesday in the last group game to advance. A red card to Claudio Marchisio aided their cause, and in the 81st minute captain Diego Godin reached a Gaston Ramirez corner kick and diverted the ball into the net off his shoulder.
So far, Uruguay hasn’t inspired much reason to believe it can replicate its semifinal appearance four years ago but getting out of this group with an older team -- its average age of 28.1 is the third-oldest -- is a testament to its famed garra.
HOMEWARD BOUND. England and Italy face severe inquests for their disappointing performances, and for Italy, this marks a second straight stumble in the group phase.
Buffon was named Man of the Match for his heroics against Uruguay but when your veteran keeper is the star, there’s something wrong. for all the plaudits laid on Andres Pirlo, he faded considerably during the three games. Italy’s lack of a reliable striker proved costly. Mario Balotelli struggled after scoring against England and only lasted the first half in the group finale. Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne didn’t make much impression.
England, too, didn’t have enough punch up front. After failing to score in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Wayne Rooney finally got a goal against Uruguay on a simple tap-in after he’d headed off the crossbar from a yard out and was thwarted on a a good chance from close range by Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera. Yet the sharp touch he regularly displays for Manchester United remains elusive.
Daniel Sturridge equalized two minutes after England fell behind Italy, but Balotelli scored right after halftime and the English attack couldn’t make up the deficit. Roy Hodgson has been retained as national team coach –-- his contract runs through the 2016 European Championship -- and there’s a fleet of younger players who got their first taste of a World Cup in Brazil: Sturridge, Ross Barkley, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshire, Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw.
A glaring lack of leadership plagued England in Brazil. Hodgson needs to restore that foundation.