San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
La Sele

Costa Rica men's football team enters friendlies with major questions to answer

Two former world champions await as Costa Rica’s national football team looks to regain its giant-killer form that spurred it through last year’s historic World Cup run.

With its best player stuck in unprecedented contract drama in Spain and a head coach that was named to the position just two weeks ago, “La Sele” enters this week’s friendlies against Brazil and Uruguay void of continuity and filled with unknowns. For his first game as head coach, Óscar Ramírez gets the worst welcome gift ever with five-time champion Brazil on Saturday. The defensive-minded Ramírez will be charged with wrapping up the Brazilians’ aggressive attack, led by Barcelona striker Neymar.

Brazil’s 23-year-old captain will present major problems for a team that has been largely without a defensive identity for the past year. How Ramírez plans to stop one of the world’s best scorers with so little time to prepare may be the most interesting side note to Saturday’s action. And alongside Neymar, Brazil also brings star defenders David Luiz and Marcelo, as well as 32-year-old legend Kaká, who could be seeing his last action with Brazil’s national team.

Ever since its disastrous exit at home in the World Cup, the Brazilians have stormed back to a 12-1-1 record, although their last game ended in a surprising loss in penalty kicks to Paraguay in June’s Americas Cup.

For Costa Rica, the loss of Bryan Oviedo makes Ramírez’s job to retool a broken defense even harder. Though Oviedo’s knee injury is only supposed to keep him out for two weeks, injuries have been a reoccurring theme for the 25-year-old Premier League defender who missed last year’s World Cup and July’s Gold Cup while sidelined with ailments.

And without star goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the margin for error or miscommunication in the backfield shrinks to zero. Esteban Alvarado is a capable goalie, as he showed when put in place for Navas during the Gold Cup, but the Ticos’ defensive losses may prove too significant against an always dangerous Brazilian frontline.

On its own front, Costa Rica is also without budding star David Ramírez, who is suspended two games by the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) after officials said he pushed referee Eric Boria in the Gold Cup quarterfinal match with Mexico. Boria was part of the officiating crew, along with Walter López, that granted Mexico a last-minute penalty kick on a controversial call that boosted the Mexicans past Costa Rica.

Saturday’s meeting with Brazil, which kicks off at 2 p.m. Costa Rican time, will be the first time La Sele has taken the field since the dramatic loss. Óscar Ramírez and company will then turn around to host Uruguay on Tuesday at the National Stadium, which will mark the third time the two countries have played in the past 15 months, with the two others resulting in Costa Rican victories.

Uruguay’s attack will be without its best talents in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez. Suárez, who is one of the world’s top strikers, is suspended from international play by FIFA after his infamous bite of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in the World Cup. However, “La Celeste” is bringing its first-team defense to Costa Rica with experienced leaders like Maxi Pereira, captain Diego Godín, and Martín Cáceres.

If Brazil gives Ramírez a chance to see where his undermanned defense can match up against the world’s best, then Uruguay will give him a clearer idea of how his offense can do against Uruguay’s respected backline. The coach made a bit of a surprise when he called up Saprissa forward Daniel Colindres, 30, and Alajuelense midfielder Ariel Rodríguez, 28, to La Sele instead of younger talent.

With known commodities like captain Bryan Ruíz, Celso Borges, and Joel Campbell already in place, all eyes will be on the new call-ups. Ramírez also selected his former player Ronald Matarrita, a 21-year-old midfielder with Alajuelense, to have the chance to take part in his first action with La Sele.

Costa Rica and Uruguay will kick off at 8 p.m. local time. Tickets, which are still available on specialticket.net, start at ₡8,000 ($16).

Contact Michael Krumholtz at mkrumholtz@ticotimes.net

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