When Costa Rican eyes are smiling

Pablo Brenes has this smile that bursts from his face. It's something he can't seem to hold back, like a toddler failing to suppress a laugh. It easily disarms the crustiest journalist. Even after losing to Iraq on Sunday night here in Athens, he let loose a smile when I asked him about his Olympic experience.

"It is amazing," said Brenes as we milled about underneath the concrete stands of Karaiskaki Stadium in Pireaus. "This is my first time. It is a great opportunity."

Not that anyone in the States would know about Brenes's smile. He's been with the MetroStars since he signed as a transitional international on June 4, but he has yet to make his mark. He's only made six appearances with no goals and no assists. When I mentioned Brenes to someone over here -- a U.S. soccer guy, no less -- he said, "Brenes? Never heard of him."

Well, after his performance in Athens, Brenes won't have to worry about whether dumb soccer guys in the States have heard of him or not. Instead, dumb U.S. soccer guys will have to worry whether smart European soccer executives have heard of him and are interested in him. Brenes has had an excellent tournament. He's been sharp and fearless in attack, creating all sorts of havoc on the left side of the Costa Rican midfield. He took it to another level last night against Portugal, icing the cake with a goal in extra time to give Costa Rica a 4-2 victory. They went through to the quarterfinals on goal differential, so Brenes's goal was the crucial one. It's the first time the ticos have ever reached the quarters of a major tournament.

"This is the first time for Costa Rica in the Olympics in 20 years," he said. (There's that smile again.) "I am very proud to be here."

Poor Costa Rica. They're getting exactly zero love around here. Nada. (See, I'm getting this español thing.) Maybe a little love, from the 27 Costa Ricans who made it to Athens and the six birkenstocked American hippies who communed down in Costa Rica for six months last year, but that's about it.

Iraq is stealing Costa Rica's underdog thunder. Granted, Iraq is on a storybook trajectory -- rising from the rubble, Olympic spirit, pride of a tattered nation, and all that other schmaltzy stuff that sells potato chips and stereos on TV -- but the Ticos are also a great story.

Costa Rica is by far the smallest nation in the Olympic soccer tournament (population: 3.9 million), and their roster is made up of nobodies. Sixteen of their 18 players ply their trade in Costa Rica; the other two are in MLS, Brenes and Erick Scott of the Columbus Crew. I bet Portugal's wonder boy Cristiano Ronaldo could pay all their salaries and still have $17 million.

If it weren't for Iraq's remarkable run to the quarterfinals, Costa Rica would be the tournament's darlings. The little Central American engine that could. Costa Rica, not Iraq, would be getting support from random Scandinavians in ponytails and Koreans with cameras around their necks. Costa Rica, not Iraq, would be garnering the TV coverage and the hype and the girls. (Actually, I doubt the Iraqis are getting the girls, either. To be honest, I couldn't tell you who's getting the girls. Maybe no one is getting the girls. Maybe the girls are getting the girls. I just don't know. The girls don't discuss this stuff with me.)

Brenes doesn't seem to care about any of this though. He's thoroughly enjoying his Olympic experience no matter how it all plays out. The other day in the Olympic Village, he saw basketball players Yao Ming and Allan Iverson just walking around. A thrill. "Muy tall," he said of Yao. "Muchos tattoos" of Iverson.

Next up for the Costa Rican nobodies is a clash with the biggest somebodies in Athens who aren't named Phelps. Argentina's squad is loaded with the likes of Gabriel Heinze, Javier Saviola, and Carlos Tevez, but Brenes is looking forward to it all.

"This is a great opportunity for Costa Rica," he said. "A great opportunity for me."

If they beat Argentina, I tried conveying, maybe the girls will start to pay more attention? "If you win, muchos niñas, no?"

Brenes looked at me for a second. Then he smiled.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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