The Ticos no one wanted are suddenly in demand
The Costa Rican national team entered the World Cup hoping to send a message to the world. “That was one of our main goals here in Brazil, letting the world know about Costa Rican football,” defender Giancarlo Gonzalez told reporters on Tuesday.
In that respect, it’s been mission accomplished for the Ticos. They’re the shock team of the tournament, beating Uruguay and Italy en route to winning their group and following that up with an extra time victory against Greece to advance to a quarterfinal match against the Netherlands. Though manager Jorge Luis Pinto has a “the team is the star” philosophy, the squad’s performance has drummed up transfer interest in several individuals, namely the superb goalkeeper Keylor Navas and perpetual Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell.
But in between the shot-stopper and the striker sits a midfield that has used the World Cup as a stage for redemption. Entering the tournament, the club status of Costa Rica’s midfielders was less than stellar. The player in the best spot? Probably defensive midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda, a 22-year-old who is yet to make the jump from the domestic league. It gets worse from there.
Winger Christian Bolaños has been longtime member of the Costa Rican national team and played regularly for FC Copenhagen but is without a contract and searching for a club. Celso Borges’s Scandinavian side, AIK in Sweden, seems to like him, but when you toss in his several years with a struggling club in Norway, it’s fair to say that his career has largely stalled out after seven years away from his native country. The region has been a popular first stop for Costa Rican players, with the theory that a few successful years there will draw the eye of larger European teams. In reality, only Everton left back Bryan Oviedo, who isn’t on the team in Brazil because of a broken leg suffered in January, made a direct move from a Nordic league to one of the world’s major leagues, when he transferred from Copenhagen.
There’s been a bit more success—but not much—going through Belgium. That’s where the fourth member of the midfield, Bryan Ruiz, played before heading to Holland’s Eredivisie and then catching on with Fulham. But this spring he was back in the Eredivisie, on loan to PSV, after falling out of favor at Craven Cottage and in need of minutes before the summer showpiece.
Midfield substitute Randall Brenes, a 30-year-old, who, like Ruiz, can also play as a second striker, had his own Norway stint before a return to Costa Rica, which he interrupted a few years back to play fewer than 500 minutes in the Azerbaijani Premier League.
Costa Rica didn’t look especially impressive in pre-tournament friendlies. It lost 3–1 to Japan and drew 1–1 draw against Ireland. Once the tournament started, though, the unit played with confidence and cohesion. Down 1–0 after a Uruguay penalty, the right side of the midfield combined with speedy right back Christian Gamboa for the equalizer. Bolaños teed up an excellent set piece that was headed in for the winner by defender Óscar Duarte. Against Italy and again against Greece, Ruiz popped up in the right place at the right time to score the lone goal. Borges, Tejeda, and Jose Cubero (a 27-year-old who has never played outside the domestic league) protected the back three with a side reduced to 10 men against Greece. Borges converted the first penalty of the shootout. “I practiced enough,” he said after the game. “It was important to score the first to give a good feeling to the group.” What’s important, he added, “was not to doubt.”
That philosophy has permeated the team’s entire run. The midfield nobody wanted brought no doubts to Brazil. Outsiders’ doubts about the players are also fading, at least if the transfer gossip columns are to be believed. Tejeda, the 22-year-old from Saprissa, is reportedly on the radar of clubs like Sunderland and Everton, plus a number of Championship clubs. It’s doubtful Fulham will keep Ruiz, though a move to a top-four club, as one British newspaper alluded to prior to Costa Rica’s match against England, seems even more unlikely. Liverpool and Leicester are said to be interested in Borges. Only poor Bolaños isn’t being linked with a Premier League outfit, though his chances have probably improved. Gossip only goes so far, but the players’ agents must be thrilled with the way their June progressed.
Now the Ticos are playing with house money. If there were few expectations on Costa Rica headed into the tournament, there are even fewer now. Not many will believe the team can topple the Netherlands in the quarterfinal, but to Bolaños it’s a familiar refrain from outside the camp.
“They told us that we weren’t going to win a single match, that we weren’t going to score goals,” Bolaños said. The team will be set on proving everyone wrong again, both for the duration of the tournament and after.