Saturday, June 03, 2006

#16: Los Ticos


Where? Central America, between Nicaragua on the North and Panama on the South.

How big? Not very big. About the size of West Virginia. Population is pretty small, smaller than Metro Atlanta.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... Costa Rica has no regular military. This boggles the mind, considering the region (I mean, didn't the US fight a semi-war in Panama, and funded one in Nicaragua?). But at the same time, they do spend money on the military. Something else interesting is how it's largest trade partner is the USA, but after that they trade most with Japan, Holland, Brazil, and Guatemala. Seems odd that they don't trade much with the bordering nations.

Geopolitical significance: Costa Rica is pretty rare among Central American nations for its peace and prosperity, and the result has been a large amount of foreign investment and tourism, moreso than regional comparables. And the future continues to look bright. While there aren't many natural resources to exploit, other than for tourism, the stable government and recent trade agreements (like CAFTA, once ratified) can only bring Costa Rica further into the fold of world economics.

Fun: Costa Rica is a outdoor adventure paradise, with volcanoes, rapid rivers, jungles, mountains, pristine beaches, waterfalls, etc... I think a hike to the Arenal Volcano would be pretty fun. Some other trivia: the first Hispanic-American to go into space was born in Costa Rica, Franklin Chang Diaz.


Picking Costa Rica to advance out of the group stage is probably a little foolish of me. Poland is probably the likelier result. But the World Cup always has a few surprises, and I think Costa Rica could provide one. The warm-up friendlies haven't suggested anything great to happen, but the other Group A teams (aside from maybe Germany) also haven't impressed.

Costa Rica's World Cup history is limited, with them having only qualified twice before. But they've played a little better than expected in both of those Cups. In their debut in Italy 1990, Costa Rica advanced out of the group stage, stunning Europe with wins over Scotland and Sweden and only losing to Brazil by one goal (that some considered a lucky result for Brazil). The 2002 cup was less successful for the Ticos, but it was mostly due to bad luck in the draw. The group included eventual champions Brazil, and eventual third place finishers Turkey, as well as local team China. Costa Rico opened with an (in real-time) impressive 2-0 win over China, and then followed it up with a draw against Turkey. In the final match against Brazil, Costa Rica got down 3-0 early, but rallied with two goals, only to lose 5-2, and be out on goal differential to Turkey. Costa Rica was the only team to score more than once against Brazil in the entire cup, and they were the only team other than Brazil not to lose to Turkey (well, Senegal drew through 90 minutes, but lost in extra time).

Costa Rica's success has been somewhat recent, but they're pretty clearly the third best team in the region after Mexico and the USA. In fact, Costa Rica is the only regional team to win a qualifier in Azteca in Mexico.

Most of the team plays domestically, but there are a few pretty good clubs in Costa Rica. The bulk of players on the cup roster play for LD Alajuelense or Deportivo Saprissa, who have won two of the last three CONCACAF Club Championships (Basically the Champions' League for North America), and they were two of the semifinalists in this year's CONCACAF Club Championship. Having so many players play together year-round could be a big advantage to Costa Rica.

The playmaker is Walter Centeno, a veteran of the 2002 cup and who has experience in European football, having spent time at AEK Athens. Also look for the woungest player on the roster, Randall Azofeifa, in the midfield. On the back line, Gilberto Martinez is the stalwart, and he's also the only member of the team based out of Europe, currently playing in Italy.

But the one to watch is the best known Costa Rican player of all time, Paulo Wanchope. A veteran of international play, as the top scorer in Tico history, he also has a long history of playing in Europe, having spent several years in England and Spain. He's still a threat for breakaways, and he's big enough to play well in the air. Look for him to have a lot of success against Ecuador, especially.

The schedule is probably challenging for Costa Rica. They open the tournament against the hosts, then get Ecuador, and the final match will be critical against Poland.

The opener whould have great fanfare and excitement, as the Ticos take on Germany in Allianz Arena. It'll be loud, mega-hyped, and generally insane. But Germany also will have a lot of pressure on them, and the openers have featured stunning results before. It'd be fun to see Costa Rica take an early lead to see how Germany reacts, but I think this one will go more to form. I think Germany scores once in each half, and Costa Rica has no response. 2-0 Germany.

Ecuador plays pretty good defense, and this should be a tougher matchup of styles. Rethinking this match, Costa Rica probably has a better chance of winning than I wrote under the Ecuador entry. I could see Wanchope netting more than one, actually. But I'll stay with the prediction, saying he only gets one and the Ecuadorians score once on a counterattack. 1-1.

Going into the final match, Costa Rica sit at the bottom of the standings, but with a chance to advance with a win over Poland and a Germany win or draw. Poland scores early on a header which could have broken their spirits. But the continuity of the team and resilience works out, as Costa Rica levels just before the half, and Wanchope scores the winner late. Just as the final whistle blows, the scoreboard posts the result in the Germany-Ecuador match: a draw. Costa Rica advances, stunning the Polish fans.

In the round of 16, Costa Rica are paired with England, a tough matchup. England's relatively easy group has allowed players to remain healthy and cardless, while Costa Rica suffered up to the last second in order to advance despite the predictions. The match starts out going England's way, which is probably necessary for the English (prone to drag things out against inferior opponents). England shows dominance in midfield, controlling the ball well. Owen streaks and takes a pass and nets it in the 10th minute. Just before halftime, a healthy Rooney nets a ball crossed by Beckham. After replacing the strikers for defense, things slow down, but Gerrard finishes the scoring with a one time blast from just inside the box. 3-0 England.

Costa Rica will surprise many in this cup, and provide the only bright spot from CONCACAF. After the cup, many European clubs rush to sign Ticos, but their success is really due to the way they play together.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Costa Rica would be... small conference school that plays great together (but not really due to a weird style of play) and advances, surprising people. Recently, I'm thinking Bucknell or Vermont.

Watch Costa Rica explode on the scene this year. I should just give up the puns and post more pictures of hot women from these countries.