RECIFE, Brazil – Costa Rica buried predictions of its early demise to emerge into the knockout stages of the World Cup for only the second time with a 1-0 Group D win over Italy on Friday that sent England crashing out.
Forward Bryan Ruiz headed powerfully home a minute before halftime to leave Costa Rica fans dancing in the sunshine at Recife’s Pernambuco arena and mocking those who thought it would be the sacrificial lamb in one of the tournament’s toughest pools.
The watertight defence and quickfire counter attacks that helped unpick Italy ensures that Costa Rica is going to be a handful for any future opponent, while it could even be a dark horse to go deep into the knockout stages.
“Today is very special,” said ecstatic coach Jorge Luis Pinto.
“We knew today we could make history and we have been able to do so. That’s what I told my players today, lets respect the past because it is very positive, but today let’s change history…
“We have played an historic team, so of course we feel really proud, our team feels proud, our country feels proud.
“I am very demanding as a coach and I know this is sometimes hard for my players, but today they have given everything.”
Costa Rica tops the group with six points, having beaten Uruguay in its first game, while Italy, three points adrift, now need at least a draw from its final game against the Uruguayans, also on three points, to go through on goal difference.
In making the last 16 for the first time in 24 years, the Central Americans ensured England became the latest team to make a surprise early exit, leaving at the group stages for the first time since 1958.
While Costa Rica may have caused a stir in becoming the first team to make it out of the group, there has been nothing fortuitous about the way it has gained results.
Apart from a brief wobble 30 minutes into the first half when Mario Balotelli wasted Italy’s best efforts, its rigid organization made it almost impenetrable at the back.
Balotelli is one of the most feared striking talents in the world but he spent most of this match in the pocket of 26-year-old Columbus Crew defender Giancarlo Gonzalez who skilfully marshalled the Costa Rica backline.
“You do not win matches just because of the titles you have won in the past,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said.
“Costa Rica worked very hard to get here in excellent shape, they were very organized and are going to go far.
“It is not a surprise. I said to my colleagues that the team is well-equipped with highly-qualified players. I said it would be a challenging group.”
The midday sun reduced the early stages to shadow boxing, with Italy hogging the ball but strolling round the pitch at walking pace while Costa Rica was busy but cautious.
Costa Rica’s back-five pushed high up the pitch to compress the space as Italy sat back and looked to hit on the break, a tactic which almost paid dividends on the half-hour mark as Balotelli was sent clear by a superb through ball from Andrea Pirlo.
But the striker, who headed the winner in Italy’s opening win over England, miscontrolled the ball with his first touch and then tried and failed to lob keeper Kaylor Nevas with his second.
As the first half was drawing to a close, Costa Rica showed why it can pose such a threat.
In the space of three minutes, Oscar Duarte headed fractionally over, Joel Campbell had a penalty appeal waved away by Chilean referee Enrique Osses and Ruiz headed them in front.
Junior Diaz floated a beautiful cross to the far post and Ruiz arrived to head it in off the underside of the bar and over the line, with the decision to award a goal confirmed on the big screen.
Italy brought on Antonio Cassano at halftime, but Costa Rica expertly took the sting out of the match, reducing its opponents only to glimpses of goal, while it continued to look threatening on the counter.
The final whistle prompted ecstatic celebrations from the travelling Costa Rica fans, while the players rushed into a huddle. Pinto took stock on the sidelines, collecting his thoughts.
“I was thinking about many things,” he said. “(I was) thanking god, thinking about all those who helped us to achieve this result… and everyone that has supported us.”