published Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Costa Rica survives 'Group of Death' with ease

Costa Rica's Joel Campbell controls the ball during the group D World Cup soccer match between Costa Rica and England at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Costa Rica's Joel Campbell controls the ball during the group D World Cup soccer match between Costa Rica and England at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — The beach ball being thrown around the stand by bored, cheering fans captured just how serene Costa Rica's progress has been at the World Cup.

It should never have been this easy for the only team in Group D which isn't a past World Cup winner and doesn't feature in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. But history and status proved no hindrance for the central American minnows, who turned the group on its head by progressing as winners.

With qualification to the round of 16 already secured with victories over Uruguay and Italy, the pressure was off as the Costa Ricans held another former champion, England, 0-0 to secure top spot on Tuesday. And it is England and Italy taking early flights home from Brazil, not the less illustrious footballing nation.

"We are really happy because this was called the 'Group of Death," Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto said through a translator after the 0-0 draw. "We always thought we would win, everybody who comes to play at a World Cup thinks they are going to win. The other teams were really difficult but we came with victory in mind."

Performances belied Cost Rica's position at 28 in the rankings, just below a Scotland team which hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1998.

After opening in Brazil with a 3-1 win over 2010 semifinalist Uruguay, the defensively-solid Costa Rica overcame 2006 champion Italy 1-0.

"Some people didn't believe this was possible," Pinto said. "Our team has proved we can play good football. It makes me feel proud and our players deserve recognition. We will keep this style and philosophy so people don't say this is just luck."

For the first time since 1990, Uruguay is in the second round where Costa Rica will play Greece, with Pinto missing out on a meeting with his homeland of Colombia.

"We've spent years hearing about the 1990 team," said midfielder Celso Borges, whose father Alexandre Guimaraes captained the Costa Rica side that went out in the second round in Italy. "Many young people did not experience that, but we are now creating new memories for them."

Confidence in the "Los Ticos" camp is growing, particularly after suppressing a young, experimental England team, which had already been eliminated before Tuesday.

"We are not just staying in our half," Pinto said, reflecting on the group stage. "We are doing something unexpected for some. Some said we would only defend, but that's not true. We have been able to attack as well and that's why we feel so proud.

"We come from a country where people like to play football so I'm glad my players have been very wonderful with the ball. They don't just try to kick the ball out, they try to keep possession. ... We are playing with quality and good tactics. And we have a good dynamic in the team."

For the 61-year-old Pinto, who progressed in coaching without a playing career, this is the fulfillment of a life's work, upsetting the odds with a team from a country with a population of less than five million.

"I always dreamt of playing at a World Cup," he said.

The dream now is of more shocks, and staying in Brazil even longer than expected.

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