It’s been a tough month for the Costa Rican men’s soccer team.
In their last World Cup qualifying match on Oct. 14, the Tico team, or La Sele, was 15 seconds shy of clinching a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when United States midfielder Jonathan Bornstein scored in the 94th minute to tie the game 2-2 and forever earn the title of villain in the hearts of the Costa Rican faithful. Had the Ticos held on to win, they wouldn’t be where they are now – preparing to play in a two-game, do-or-die playoff series with Uruguay for the final World Cup slot allotted to the Western Hemisphere. The playoff will be decided by the combined score of the two games.
“The loss is behind us now,” said Costa Rica midfielder Luis Marín in an interview with FIFA.com. “Of course it was a heavy blow, but mentally we’ve handled it well. Coach René Simoes spoke to us about it and we also looked at how we ourselves were to blame. Only God knows why it had to happen like that, but from now on we’ve simply got to focus on the matches against Uruguay.”
He’s right. If the Ticos can win the two-game series with Uruguay, they’ll taste victory and qualify for the World Cup, and those painful memories will forever be forgotten. But beating Uruguay will be no easy task. To say the least, Uruguay’s team, known as Los Charrúas, is a formidable opponent.
In addition to their two World Cup championships (1930, 1950), Uruguay is tough at home, losing only twice in Montevideo, the country’s capital, during World Cup qualifying. Those losses were to Brazil, the FIFA No. 1-ranked team in the world, and to perennial powerhouse Argentina.
In similar heartbreaking fashion to Costa Rica, Uruguay would have advanced to the World Cup with a win over Argentina in their final qualifying match in Montevideo.
However, after outplaying Argentina much of the game, Argentina scored in the 84th minute to dash Uruguay’s qualifying hopes.
The playoff for a final World Cup spot is familiar territory for Uruguay, who played in similar two-game playoffs in 2001 and 2005, both against Australia. In 2001, Uruguay beat Australia to qualify but, in 2005, Australia shocked the soccer world by beating Uruguay on penalty kicks to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“We mustn’t be overconfident or let our heads drop,” said Uruguayan forward Diego Forlan. “We need to realize that we’re two games away from qualifying and we can do it. Nobody likes being in this position, but we’ve been there before and know how to approach it.”
Players to Watch
Most international soccer analysts predict that Uruguay will emerge victorious from the two-game playoff to claim the final World Cup spot. Those predictions are centered primarily on comparisons of the caliber of players on the two squads, as Uruguay touts players who play in some of the best leagues in the world, such as the Italian Serie A and Spain’s La Liga.
Following is a look at some of the players who could have the most impact on the result of the series.
Brian Ruiz – The 23-year old Tico striker is emerging as one of the best players in the country’s history. Since his two superb goals against the U.S., Ruiz has continued his scoring ways for his club team, F.C. Twente, of the Dutch league.
Walter Centeno – When Centeno, the veteran captain of the team, generates an offensive spark for La Sele, they are a much more dangerous team.
Keilor Navas – The Tico goalkeeper will undoubtedly be challenged by the talented Uruguayan strikers. At times, Navas is unbeatable; at times, he’s shaky. He will need to be at his best for the Ticos to have any chance to win.
Diego Forlan – The blond-locked forward and Uruguay team captain led La Liga, the renowned Spanish soccer league, in goals last season with his team, Atletico Madrid.
Luis Suárez – The 22-year old is the captain of the historic club Ajax, of the Dutch league. He has scored 15 goals in 11 league games this year.
Behind the Stats
The first game of the two-game series will be played in Costa Rica on the worn, bald, artificial turf of Ricardo Saprissa Stadium, in the northern San José suburb of Tibás. In nine games during World Cup qualifying played at the stadium, the Ticos won eight games by a combined score of 23-1.
Uruguay will be without the services of five players for the first game. All will serve a game suspension for yellow card accumulation during World Cup qualifying. Midfielder Christian Rodríguez will miss both games after being dealt a four game suspension for a post-game cheap shot after the Argentina loss.
Costa Rican coach René Simoes will also miss the first game to serve his suspension after being ejected in the game against the U.S. T he referee for the first game will be Spain’s Alberto Indiano. The first game will be at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Switzerland’s Massimo Busacca will referee the second game at 5 p.m. (local time) Wednesday, Nov. 18, at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, Uruguay.