It didn't matter who believed in Costa Rica coming into Brazil 2014. The Ticos believed in themselves – and, judging by the results so far, with good reason.
Two matches into Group D play, Costa Rica already have victimized all three of the former champions that make up the rest of the field. After opening with a 3-1 shock defeat of Uruguay, they followed up on Friday with a 1-0 decision over four-time champion Italy – a result that also knocked out England, their final opponent, for the first time in group stage since 1958.
“Today's a very special moment for us,” manager Jorge Luis Pinto said through a translator in his postmatch news conference. “We knew today we could make history for Costa Rica, and we have been able to do so. It is true that in 1990, in 2002 and 2006, we already fought very hard. But today we wanted to change history.”
They did, becoming just the third CONCACAF team – and the first this century – to win their first two Cup matches. And they made it look convincing.
Pinto's tactical decision to take a high defensive line, which included Columbus Crew center back Giancarlo González, and focus on shutting down Italian passing wizard Andrea Pirlo in the midfield worked wonders. Pirlo had little room to operate on a muggy afternoon in Recife, and by the end of the match the Italians were reduced to spraying balls in the general direction of teammates and hoping for the best.
“We tried to change,” Italian manager Cesare Prandelli said in his portion of the news conference. “We tried to think of engaging one against one on the outside, but we were never able to free up our players. So we started off poorly.”
And when Pirlo did manage to get the ball to someone in space, too many times the Azzurri found themselves with too much space for the linesman's liking. They were flagged for offside 11 times, done in time and again by the Ticos' offside trap.
“I think our defense was perfect,” Pinto said. “I don't want to be too positive, but I think our defense was really good. We have played very well.”
With that level of defensive dominance, Costa Rica needed only one goal to lock up all three points and a spot in the round of 16. They got it in the 44th minute, when Bryan Ruiz made a back-post run to Junior Díaz's cross and headed it off the crossbar and barely over the line for the winner.
"It's inexplicable what I'm feeling,” Ruíz said in the flash zone after the match. “We suffered a lot. All these years, I wasn't able to be in a World Cup and today, I was able to go down in history scoring the goal. I think we dreamed of this and had faith we could do it. A lot of people didn’t have faith in us. We're in a World Cup group of death. But dead are the others.
“It's a dream,” he added. “It's tough to believe it. But we want more. We're not going to content ourselves with this.
Goal-line technology confirmed the score, and replays clearly showed a narrow band of green between the ball and the goal line.
"I knew it went in when I headed it,” Ruiz said. “I saw it go in. But you never know, and that's why we have the technology."