You Rica! Ticos discover right formula to defeat big guns

You Rica! Ticos discover right formula to defeat big guns
Costa Rica's coach Jorge Luis Pinto celebrates after winning their 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match against Italy at the Pernambuco arena in Recife.

Brazil - The day that Costa Rica was drawn last December to play against three former World Cup winners at this World Cup, the Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto told everyone who would listen: "We love the group - the braver the bull, the better the bullfight."

The bull is still standing. The matadors are scattered.

Coming from a goal down to beat Uruguay 3-1 was a shock.

Outplaying Italy and winning 1-0 on Friday was so shocking that Fifa ordered seven Costa Rican players to undergo dope tests, a process that took two hours after a match in humid conditions that requires dehydrated men to give up a sample of urine.

"It seems a bit excessive," commented one of the seven, Bryan Ruiz.

His goal had beaten Italy just a matter of seconds after many of us wondered, not for the first time, whether the Fifa police should be investigating suspect refereeing at this tournament.

To the eye of the neutral, and the rage of Pinto, the Chilean referee Enrique Osses had waved away appeals after Italy's Giorgio Chiellini blatantly body-checked the Ticos' Joel Campbell inside the area.

Thankfully, some natural justice and some more woeful Italian defending righted that wrong, even before Pinto had stopped dancing angrily up and down on the touchline.

Costa Rica left back Junior Diaz hit a deep cross from his wing and Ruiz glided between two sleepwalking Italians - Chiellini and Matteo Darmian.

While they dithered, Ruiz beat goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon with a fabulous controlled header at the far post.

Cue a second dance from Pinto. This time the 61-year-old coach, who was born in Colombia, was like a child jumping for joy.

He had told his players: "Let's change history."

History is the right word.

The recrimination now under way in England is a regular four-year cycle of emotion as the old country realises that the world has long moved on from fearing the founder nation of this game.

Respect, maybe. Fear, of course not.

Italy still have a chance of squeaking through to the next round because if they can stifle Luis Suarez and so much as draw the game against Uruguay in Natal on Tuesday, the Azzurri would go through on goal difference.

And when we speak of history, nobody turns pessimism into pragmatism in terms of getting the job done more effectively than the Italians.

That said, the coach Cesare Prandelli really must change his script.

He has bemoaned the heat and humidity in northern Brazil ever since his men were run to a standstill against the Japanese and Spanish at last year's Confederations Cup.

For the record, the match against Costa Rica kicked off with the temperature at 28 deg C and humidity at 78 per cent.

Singaporeans might ask what all the fuss is about but Europeans do wilt in these conditions. Costa Ricans, living close to the Equator themselves, relish the climate.

The effects on the body might be less than the phobia in the mind.

Certainly Italy and England had played an exhausting (and by the way very watchable) game in the Manaus rainforest region at the start of the week.

But aren't professional athletes surrounded these days by nutritionists and medical experts and physical gurus who help their recovery process?

Anyway, the more the Italians feared the rising mercury, the more the Ticos said: "Bring it on."

The bigger the reputations the Costa Ricans faced, the less they had to lose.

Only Ruiz and Diaz, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas of the starting 11 have experience in any of the major European leagues. Navas is with Levante in Spain.

Ruiz was dumped by Fulham, not exactly a big club in the English Premier League, and spent the last half of last season on loan at PSV Eindhoven in Holland.

Diaz plays for Mainz in Germany, but his place in the Ticos' line-up would have been challenged had Bryan Oviedo, another left-back having a wonderful first season with Everton, not had his leg broken last January.

To lose a good left-back, and come up with another who created the winning goal against Italy speaks volumes for Costa Rica.

And young Campbell has been on Arsenal's books for three seasons, without getting a game while the club has loaned him out to clubs in France, Spain and Greece.

I am sure the question on your lips is: Where is Costa Rica and what is its population?

The location lies in Central America - south of the USA, north of South America, and between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

The population is about 4.7 million, so less than Singapore.

The difference is that Costa Ricans have always loved football, and had a real tilt at surprising everyone during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

This, though, is their finest hour.

Fifa's explanation for calling seven of the team into doping control was that two were the routine post-game tests, and the other five were invited to give a sample because they had not undergone a test before the tournament began.

"People still don't believe," said the goalie Navas. "We believed it from the outset.

Thank God, we're all relaxed, with a clear conscience."

He suggested that testing two-thirds of the side showed a lack of respect.

Maybe Fifa, and maybe the Italians, wondered what they are on. The Ticos' answer is that they are on a mission to beat the big guys, and darned happy with themselves for doing so.

The coach, a student of Italian football, decided on an Italian tactic to outwit the group favourites. He noted that Juventus often use high pressure with defenders pushing upfield and to hold opponents 30m from their goal.

Andrea Pirlo, the best long passer in the modern game, did twice find his range and ping the ball over this high wall of defenders.

On each occasion, Mario Balotelli was his target. At the first attempt, Balotelli's first touch let him down and he had to rush his attempt to lob the keeper.

On the second, Balotelli was caught in the offside trap of the Costa Ricans.

"We had a very precise idea of what he was doing," said Pinto. "Balotelli is crazy perhaps. But he's a good player."

Smother Pirlo, goad Balotelli, beat Italy. No dopes, these Ticos.

This article was first published on JUNE 22, 2014.
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