San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

C.R.: One of Best Small Country Soccer Teams?

Costa Rica’s national soccer team, also known as La Sele, has slipped eight places since its July ranking, according to the governing body of international soccer (FIFA), which ranks 207 countries and provinces that compete internationally.

La Sele is currently ranked 38th, down from July’s ranking of 30th, the highest the team has been ranked since May of 2006. Though the top 40 ranking is nothing to frown at, if a ranking were made for “top international teams with populations of less than 5 million”, Costa Rica would be ranked 7th.

“I think it is more about how soccer is developed in the country than the population,” said a FIFA representative who asked not to be identified. “China and India have very large populations but, historically, have not had much of an impact on world soccer.

Their focus is more on other sports than soccer. Holland, on the other hand, is a small country that has always been successful. So has Uruguay. Uruguay has only about three million people, but they have won two world cups.”

According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook, Costa Rica is the 124th most populous country in the world, with just over 4.25 million people.

Among the teams ranked by FIFA in the top 50, nine have populations of fewer than five million. Croatia, ranked 10th, is the to-pranked country with a population under five million. Croatia is the 122nd most populated country in the world, with 4.5 million people. Uruguay, the smallest country to ever win a World Cup, is currently ranked 21st in the world. The population of Uruguay is around 3.5 million, making it the 132nd most populated country.

In the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Footbal (CONCACAF), six teams are vying for three World Cup spots. Of these, Costa Rica has the second smallest population, with only the islands of Trinidad & Tobago having fewer people (1.2 million). The U.S. has the largest population of the group, with over 307 million people. Costa Rica beat the U.S. 3-1 on June 3.

“A lot of results depend on how popular soccer is in the country,” said the FIFA representative. “Costa Rica is primarily a soccer country, whereas the U.S. has football, basketball, baseball. Often, countries with an emphasis solely on soccer traditionally perform better than countries where soccer is not the top sport.”

Despite its smaller population, Costa Rica is currently in first place in its qualifying group. The Ticos have 12 points, followed by Honduras and the U.S. with 10 each, and Mexico with 9. Trinidad and Tobago has five points, as does El Salvador.

World Cup qualifying matches again will take place on Sept. 5, when Mexico visits Costa Rica. The game potentially could be the most critical for both teams thus far in the qualifying round. The Ticos will look to rebound from a 4-0 dismantling against Honduras on Aug. 12, while the Mexican team hopes to continue to ride its momentum after a 2-1 win against the U.S. Mexico is currently ranked 30th in the FIFA world rankings, up from 33rd in July, their lowest ranking in history.

In preparation for the highly anticipated game, Costa Rican coach Rodrigo Kenton added two defenders to the roster this week, reinforcing the need for an improved defensive effort after conceding four goals to Honduras on Aug. 12.

“Tactically, we will potentially take on new formations,” Kenton said in a press conference on Monday. “We are going to change some elements in hopes of making our approach a little more dynamic. I am hoping that some minor changes will provide the results we are looking for.”

All six teams in CONCACAF will play on Sept. 5 and again on Sept. 9. Costa Rica will play at El Salvador on Sept. 9.

After the games on the 9th, there will be only two more qualifying matches to determine the World Cup participants. The top three teams from the CONCACAF region will advance directly to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, while the fourth place finisher in the CONCACAF region participate in a two-game playoff series against the fifth place team from the South American region to determine the final World Cup spot for the Americas.


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