SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Duro. Muy duro. Hard. Very hard.
Apart from a simmering sense of injustice in the wake of the Snow Game, that no-nonsense evaluation of the task at hand is about the only consensus you’ll find among Costa Ricans ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against the United States (10 pm ET, beIN Sport).
Needless to say, the locals haven’t forgotten what happened in Denver back in March, nor the dramatic draw in 2009 that knocked Costa Rica out of an automatic World Cup bid. And with talk radio stoking the flames, Snow Game flashbacks on loop on local television and front pages across the country dedicated to the match, how could they?
What they can’t agree on, however, is whether Los Ticos can actually reverse this spring’s result. Understandably, given historic results in San Jose, most expect three points and the reward of pole position in the Hex. But plenty point to la calidad de los Americanos to justify a 1-1 draw or, in rare cases, a resounding US victory.
“We expect them to play off the emotion in all ways, the emotion of the crowd,” Michael Bradley told reporters on Thursday. “In a lot of ways, their emotions left over from the game in March. Their emotions of us knocking them out of the World Cup last go-around.”
Brazil Bound: On the road in Costa Rica
In some ways, the Americans have come to represent a sort of sporting bugaboo here, a feeling reinforced by the welcoming party a few hundred deep that greeted the Yanks at the airport with chants and signs inspired what is perceived as a bogus result in March and punctuated by a few well-aimed egg missiles.
The Costa Rican federation did nothing to discredit that impression, as the US struggled to find a training site, received match balls a day late and found signs of gamesmanship around every turn, including an air-horn equipped (and, frankly, hilarious) cow mascot that disrupted their media availability on Wednesday.
The general sentiment voiced by cab drivers, construction workers, former players, barefoot kids in the countryside and just about anyone else you ask is that the US’ narrow victory in Colorado was a verguenza (a disgrace) and revancha (revenge) is at stake at Estadio Nacional.
It’s no exaggeration to say soccer is an obsession in this Central American country of more than four million inhabitants. In the gritty confines here of the capital city and the undulating hills and mountains blanketed in green that surround the city, there are canchas just about everywhere there’s flat ground.
Kids play barefoot after the daily afternoon rain showers and men come together on small-sided fields to get in a sweat. They all express intense pride in their country, their national team and the prospect of a place on soccer’s grandest stage in Brazil come next summer.
“They are very proud of what they do and they are very passionate,” said US boss Jurgen Klinsmann, who was at the helm of Germany in 2006 when they played Costa Rica in a memorable tournament opener. “They are very intense. They live soccer 24-7. They want the dream of the World Cup. They want to get to the World Cup.”
Of course, so do the Americans.
Unlike in years past, the US won’t have to chase their first-ever victory in Costa Rica at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. Instead, the modern Estadio Nacional – built by China at a cost of more than $100 million and with a capacity of 35,175 – will host, much to the frustration of many who hoped to repay the Americans for Denver with a visit one of CONCACAF’s most intimidating venues.
That’s not to say the atmosphere on Friday will be tame. Coins and disposable batteries (even in cameras) won’t be allowed in the stadium, a preventive measure that’s a commendable step but unlikely to eliminate projectiles should the game tilt the Americans way.
If you ask the US players, though, the passion on display here isn’t just welcomed. It’s practically cherished. The road to Brazil isn’t supposed to be smooth, and the Costa Ricans’ fixation on avenging March’s disputed result promises to make for a fascinating 90 minutes.
“In some ways over the years, it’s calmed down a little bit,” Bradley said. “To now have one that gets kind of cranked back up, it’s exciting.”