Although the weather report had called for thunderstorms, no lightning struck Wednesday evening when Costa Rica’s national soccer team hosted El Salvador in the first game of this qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Many Tico fans at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, on the north side of San José, were looking for a dynamic win, but the results, although definitive, were more subdued, as La Sele, as the Tico team is known, bested their competitors 1-0, with the lone goal coming off a penalty kick.
In the first half, the homeland squad saw some modest offensive opportunities and one spectacular shot on goal to the far right post by striker Alvaro Saborío that was batted out by a diving Salvadoran keeper Miguel Montes. The visiting team, for their part, saw a few corner and free kicks of their own pass untouched in front of the Tico goal, but could not capitalize.
The first half ended in a draw, but not before El Salvador were awarded a penalty kick at the 46th minute. Capt. Eliseo Quintanilla, who plays for the local club team Alajuelense, took the shot to the lower left, but a lunging Rodriguez González, who said he’d been studying Quintanilla, picked correctly and blocked the shot. However, González wasn’t able to hold onto the ball, and the whole stadium watched anxiously as the players descended on the rebound, exhaling only when the Tico defense safely cleared the ball away.
Shortly into the second half, it was the Ticos’ turn for a penalty kick. La Sele drew a foul inside the box in the 46th minute, sending Saborío to the line. Montes guessed left, but the side was irrelevant as Saborío drilled it straight up into the center of the net.
Later on, Quintanilla missed a second golden opportunity off a free kick in the 76th minute, and El Salvador mounted no other serious attacks.
Overall, a tentative air nagged much of the game that disproved neither the naysayers, who were expecting a more definitive showing, nor the more generous fans, who were happy to come away with a win that put Costa Rica atop their group’s standings with three points.
Mexican head referee Marco Rodriguez issued yellow cards to no less than nine players during the game, and then a second yellow – which results in a red – to Saborío, sending him off the field and leaving the Ticos to finish out the remaining 10 minutes with as many men on the field.
While playing it safe for the most part, La Sele coach Rodrigo Kenton, in his first game leading the national team, subbed out Bryan Ruíz, arguably the team’s strongest player, for Froylán Ledezma, arguably Kenton’s most questioned naming to the national squad. Ledezma made no spectacular gaffes, but neither played spectacularly and often looked as clumsy as Ruíz had been agile.
After the game, Wálter Centeno, sporting the captain’s armband for the first time, said the team was in good spirits and satisfied with the result. After the discouraging string of winless qualifying games in the last year under testy former head coach Hernán Medford, the win under Kenton was encouraging.
“Today was a first step, an important step,” said the Saprissa midfielder.
To the fans who wanted a showering of goals, Centeno asked them to “just stay calm.
“Today we played a good game. Even though we scored one goal, … the most important thing for me is that we’re winning qualifying matches.”
“It would have worried me only if Costa Rica hadn’t gotten the ball in the other team’s net at all,” said Kenton. “We can’t think that every shot will be on goal, that they all will go in. But we were there; we created chances.”
For González, the result, as well as the task ahead, is clear. “We have the characteristics to be able to play, but we definitely have to work a lot, every day and practice, and that’s how it’s going to get better,” he said before heading to the locker room. “But today we came out with the three points.”
Manuel Calderon, a San José newspaper salesman, put it most succinctly: “They’ve got a lot to work for the next game … but I’m happy.”
The two teams will play again when El Salvador host the Ticos on Nov. 19. For their next qualifier, La Sele will host Suriname on Sept. 6.