The long climb back to World Cup glory begins Friday for a Costa Rica football team looking to repeat history. If “La Sele” is to get back to the quarterfinals of the world’s biggest tournament, the team first must take care of business in its regional bracket when 2018 World Cup qualifying play begins Friday.
Costa Rica automatically qualified for the fourth round of the CONCACAF qualification matches and is grouped together in a round robin with Jamaica, Panama, and Haiti. La Sele hosts the Haitians on Friday at National Stadium in San José, where it will look to get off to a faster start than it did in qualifying for Brazil, where Costa Rica suffered through a disappointing 2-2 tie with El Salvador at home.
“It’s important to win the first game and make up the difference,” captain Bryan Ruíz told reporters when he entered the country on Monday. “The most important thing is to win because we don’t want to repeat what happened the last time we began World Cup qualifying, which made it harder on us.”
With Ruíz returning after missing last month’s pair of friendlies against South Africa and the United States, the national team has its most reliable offensive creator back. Much like they were when they played El Salvador to open 2014 World Cup qualifying, the Costa Ricans are heavily favored against Haiti, which remains one of the weaker teams in the region.
A loss or tie to the Haitians would be a potentially devastating setback for Costa Rica in its attempt to qualify for Russia in 2018. Of the other teams in Group B along with the Ticos, Panama has always been a competitive rival and Gold Cup runner-up Jamaica is a team on the rise.
“If we do our job and don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, I don’t think there’s another team that has the quality we have player-for-player,” said striker Joel Campbell, who scored La Sele’s lone goal in the 1-0 win over the U.S. in October.
Though most of its core lineup will be intact when Costa Rica takes the pitch on Friday, the country’s best player will be watching from across the ocean in Spain. Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas is being withheld from the first two World Cup qualifying matches so that he can recover from a nagging groin injury.
While many analysts say the world’s most expensive club is withholding Navas from playing with La Sele to make sure he’s ready for the all-important match against rival and La Liga-leader Barcelona on Nov. 21, its now the eighth time in the last 10 games that Navas won’t be suiting up for Costa Rica.
Other injuries to the perpetually banged-up Bryan Oviedo and midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda leave the Ticos without two other prospective starters against Haiti and Panama, which Costa Rica plays on Tuesday.
Head coach Óscar Ramírez, who has led Costa Rica to a 2-2 record in his first four games, announced Wednesday that 33-year-old Alajuelense goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton will start in place of Navas for the first leg of qualifying play.
In his last showing for the national team on Sept. 5, Pemberton played well in the 1-0 loss to Brazil when he made an array of spectacular saves against the Brazilians’ all-world attack.
He figures to face much less pressure against Haiti, which has not qualified for a world cup since 1974.
Costa Rica’s road to Russia kicks off on Friday at 8 p.m. local time from San José’s National Stadium.