Costa Rica were the last team to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but the Central American side will travel to Qatar hoping for a different experience.
They will be hoping to avoid making a swift exit like they did in Russia four years ago.
Playing in their sixth World Cup, Costa Rica are no longer minnows and Fernando Suarez’s squad will be expected to do more than just make up the numbers in the tournament.
They shocked the world in 2014 when they had their best run at the finals in a “Group of Death” with three heavyweights —- Uruguay, Italy and England.
They defied overwhelming odds to top the group without losing, and conceded just one goal — a penalty kick.
But their luck ran out in the quarter-finals when they were knocked out by the Netherlands in a penalty kicks shootout.
Six players from that Costa Rica squad, who are all on the wrong side of 30, are expected to be in Qatar.
These are goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte, Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges.
The same players also featured at the World Cup in 2018 and, although Costa Rica were eliminated in the group stage, Suarez has a core of senior men with tournament experience to count on.
Suarez has built his team on defensive solidity, which saw them concede only eight goals in qualifying, while they were dangerous on the counter-attack.
But they did not have the best start to their qualifiers with six points from seven games.
They quickly turned things around, though, with six wins and a draw in the second half of the campaign to advance to the inter-continental playoff.
That was where they beat New Zealand to seal the last spot at the World Cup.
Although Suarez was slammed for picking ageing veterans like 35-year-old Navas and 37-year-old Bryan Ruiz in their quest to qualify, he was vindicated when they punched their ticket to Qatar.
“I had to persuade them to stay on and play another World Cup and I’m glad I did,” Suarez said. “There were many who criticised that, but they were an important part of the success of this squad.
“This group is spectacular, I can’t describe it … With these players it is much easier to do things.”
Suarez is something of a World Cup veteran himself, having coached Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup before leading Honduras at the 2014 edition.
Having taken over the Costa Rica squad last year to guide them to Qatar, he will be the sixth coach in history to manage a team at three World Cups.
But Costa Rica hold a special place in his heart, which led to the Colombian renewing his contract in spite of interest from other teams.
“In my life, I have never worked with such intelligent people. I have never worked with people so committed to achieving something,” he said.
“I have to thank all the people of Costa Rica. There were challenging moments. I felt everyone wanted to qualify every time I was on the street. My eternal gratitude to all the people, to the whole country.”(Reuters/NAN)
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