By Simon Evans
(Reuters) – Costa Rica were one of the surprise packages of the 2014 World Cup but, having failed to build upon that success, it is hard to see Oscar Ramirez’s side performing similar heroics in Russia.
Four years ago, ‘Los Ticos’ defied all predictions by finishing top of a group featuring three former World Cup winners in Italy, England and Uruguay, emerging unbeaten in all three games.
Then, inspired by goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the Central Americans battled past Greece on penalties to take their place in the last eight for the first time.
Their quarter-final shootout ended in a loss to the Netherlands, however, and the impressive run of Jorge Luis Pinto’s team had come to an end without the loss of a single game in regulation play or extra time.
Having gone further in Brazil than regional rivals Mexico or the United States, some felt Costa Rica might be on the verge of becoming the new major force in the CONCACAF region.
But such a prospect has failed to materialise.
The Costa Rican federation was unable to agree a new deal with Colombian Pinto, who five months after being hailed for his achievements at the World Cup moved to take charge of Honduras.
Former striker Paulo Wanchope was put in charge and promised to be the man to bring through a fresh generation to compliment and liven up the experienced squad from Brazil.
But after Wanchope got involved in a fracas with a steward at an under-23 match in Panama, he stood down and the federation turned to Ramirez, a dependable figure who had enjoyed success in the domestic league.
In the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the region’s tournament for national sides, Costa Rica were eliminated by Mexico in the quarter-finals and two years later were beaten by the Americans in the semi-finals.
The qualifying process for Russia showed, however, that there is still plenty of quality in the side, even if there has been no significant change of generation.
The 4-0 crushing of the United States in November 2016 and the 2-0 win over the Americans in New Jersey a year later, were performances that showed Los Ticos are not to be under-estimated.
The draw for Russia has not been kind to the Central Americans though, with Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland lined up as formidable opponents in Group E.
Recent defeats to Tunisia and Hungary in friendly matches have done little to raise hopes of another surprise run and while there have been some new faces introduced, the country’s hopes rest on the tried and tested core of players.
That spine includes Cristian Gamboa, Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and of course, Real Madrid keeper Navas.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by John O’Brien)