BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- “Life is an open miracle,” renowned Costa Rican poet Jorge Debravo once wrote. After topping a World Cup group featuring three past champions, his country’s soccer team is proving that more than ever.
By now everyone knows the story. First Uruguay, twice world champion and semifinalist last World Cup in South Africa, was dismantled in Fortaleza. Then four-time World Cup winner Italy was dispatched in Recife, clinching Los Ticos’ place in the next round. And Tuesday, on a sun-drenched afternoon at Estadio Mineirão, the sporadically lively attacking threat of a young England team was dealt with comfortably to ensure that Costa Rica finished top of its group after a 0-0 draw.
It is a remarkable achievement for a team seen as rank outsiders to make it into the next round.
“If we beat Costa Rica I want a kiss, obviously on the cheek, from the UK Queen,” Italy striker Mario Balotelli tweeted, rather patronizingly, before the two sides met last Friday, presuming that the Azzurri would have no problem helping England out by defeating the group underdog. Yet both European sides are out, and it is Costa Rica that will return to Recife, scene of arguably its greatest triumph so far, to take on Greece in the round of 16. Perhaps the greatest danger the team faces is that nobody, surely, will be naive enough to underestimate it now.
Having already qualified, and knowing that a draw would be enough to top the group, the Costa Rican players can be forgiven for taking their collective foot of the gas a little against already-eliminated England. Experienced Colombian-born coach Jorge Luis Pinto admitted after the game that he had rested a couple of players for the match, such as bandana-sporting wide midfielder Christian Bolaños, a lively attacking threat in the team’s first two fixtures, but who spent the first hour here on the bench.
A number of other Costa Rican players were also quieter than usual, such as wing-back Junior Diaz, whose fearsome free-kick deliveries had been such a feature against Uruguay and Italy. And while the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley caused Costa Rican defenders Oscar Duarte and Giancarlo Gonzalez a few anxious moments, the pair ultimately held as firm as they had done against the Italians four days ago.
Up front, striker Joel Campbell, whose pace and powerful shooting has made him as one of the more dangerous strikers at this World Cup, was also a little subdued, while the craft and elegance of the slender Bryan Ruiz lay behind most of Costa Rica’s best moments.
Perhaps the team’s outstanding player at this World Cup, however, has been talented goalkeeper Keylor Navas, a standout for Levante in Spain this year. Whenever England broke through at the Mineirão, Navas was up to the task, with his best moment coming in the second half,when he pounced quickly to pick the ball off Sturridge’s toes as the Liverpool striker prepared to shoot.
“We’re satisfied,” said Pinto after the match. “We knew it wouldn’t be an easy game. England are a difficult team. We got a point, but both teams had opportunities.”
As with many underdogs, compelling stories swirl around the Costa Rica team, such as that of hardworking midfielder Celso Borges, whose father Alexandre Guimarães set up the winning goal against Sweden in 1990 that sent the country into the knockout stage of a World Cup for the first time.
Costa Rica was eventually eliminated by the former Yugoslavia 4-1 in the last 16 that year, while Guimarães went on to coach the country in 2002 and 2006, the only two other occasions on which Costa Rica has qualified for the World Cup.
“My dad was always my hero. He was my idol throughout my youth,” Borges told The Guardian last week. “Of course I liked Zidane and Iniesta, but my father was my ultimate hero.”
Then there is the much-traveled Pinto, now in his second spell in charge of the team. A few days ago he endeared himself to at least some Brazilian soccer lovers by announcing that he is a fan of Sao Paulo club Corinthians.
“I lived in Sao Paulo for years,” he said. “I was at the game in 1977 when Corinthians won the state title, and I still follow them today.”
The coach’s best line of the tournament came after the Italy game, however. “Group of Death? Death is for the others,” he quipped.
Costa Rica’s success is part of a surprisingly positive World Cup campaign for the CONCACAF region, which is often criticized for a lack of competitiveness. Mexico, which pushed Brazil all the way in Fortaleza last week, has already qualified for the knockout stages, and a point against Germany would see the U.S. through as well. Even Honduras still has a mathematical chance of sneaking into the next round, as improbably as it may appear.
“I’m delighted for the CONCACAF teams,” said Pinto. “Mexico is a very sophisticated side, and I hope Honduras make it as well. The U.S. can qualify too.”
No longer a surprise package, the pressure on Costa Rica is sure to increase as the team progresses through the tournament. For Pinto, however, making the second round isn’t as huge a shock as people imagine.
“We expected to win the World Cup,” he said, when asked if he had felt optimistic before the tournament. “Everybody thinks they are going to win the World Cup at the start. Then after the Italy game, our confidence started to grow.”
With a population of just over 4.5 million, Costa Rica is the second smallest country in the last 16, and the coach knows that his team’s achievement is a huge moment for Costa Rican soccer.
“It brings great happiness to the country and the players," Pinto said. "It makes us very proud. The hard work we put in in the past is bearing fruit now. We’re very well organized tactically, and we don’t just defend, we can attack as well. People didn’t expect us to be so good on the ball, but we come from a country where people love to play football.”
Now, a date with Greece awaits. While Pinto may have hoped for a tie against his beloved Colombia (“I bought tickets for my whole family to come and watch a game. I’ve been hoping to play Colombia for six months!”) he knows that the Greeks will be also be tough opponents. Equally, though, he knows his team is ready.
“We’re united. We will keep fighting,” he said.
All of Costa Rica hopes he is right. Nobody wants this World Cup pura vida -- a popular Costa Rican expression for "the good life" -- to end.