Costa Rica still riding a hot streak -- can it keep it up?
Posted: Wednesday May 24, 2006 11:54AM; Updated: Friday May 26, 2006 1:51PM
Paulo Wanchope is Costa Rica's all-time leading goal scorer and a veteran of the English Premier League.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
By Mark Bechtel, SI.com
FIFA world ranking: No. 26.
How they qualified for Germany: Finished third in CONCACAF with a 5-1-4 record.
Previous World Cups and finishes: two appearances (1990, 2002). Second round in '90.
Manager: Alexandre Guimaraes, second year with team.
Prodigal son Paulo Wanchope is back plying his trade in the Costa Rican league after a brief spell in Qatar, where many an over-the-hill footballer has gone to cash a few last big paychecks before hanging up his boots. Make no mistake, though, Wanchope hasn't passed his prime. The former Derby County, Man City and West Ham striker is just 29. He is a mercurial talent.
He's gifted with size (at 6-foot-4 he was an aspiring basketball player who was recruited by D-I programs such as UNLV and Michigan State before switching to soccer) and skill (they still talk about his goal in his Derby County debut, at Old Trafford in 1997, when he wove through the Man Utd defense and put a left-footed shot past Peter Schmeichel; in fact, the English press compared it to Diego Maradona's slaloming goal against England in '86).
If it looks like Wanchope is winging it out there, it's because he usually is. But you can't argue with the results. Last year he became Costa Rica's all-time leading goal scorer with his 43rd goal in his 67th game -- which just happened to be a 3-0 drubbing of the U.S.
What to watch for
The Ticos might have been the most entertaining team in 2002. They attacked in waves before finally bowing out of the tournament with a 5-2 loss to Brazil (which let eventual third-place winner Turkey slide through on goal differential). After the Cup, Guimaraes left the team and was replaced by former U.S. boss Steve Sampson, who was succeeded by Jorge Luis Pinto. Under Pinto, Costa Rica barely eked past Cuba in the first round of qualifying. Pinto was let go during the final round, replaced by Guimaraes (a linchpin of the '90 World Cup squad), who turned things around. Under their old boss, the Ticos beat both the U.S. and Mexico to finish third.
Guimaraes has much the same team he did in '02. The question is, will he play the same brand of soccer? He has suggested that he learned his lesson from the Brazil game and won't put himself in a situation where his team will give up four or five goals. Given his group (the hosts figure to handle the Ticos as well as Ecuador and Poland), there's a pretty good chance the battle for second will come down to goal difference, so a more conservative approach might benefit him.
On the other hand, virtually all of his weapons are attacking players, so it'll be hard for him not to play to his strengths. Guimaraes will likely go with a 3-5-2, with free-kick specialist Rónald Gómez playing an attacking role and the speedy Cristian Bolaños out on the right. (Gómez scored the game-winner on a 90th-minute free kick for Deportivo Saprissa, a team loaded with national team players, in the third-place game at the Club World Championship last December.) Given the Ticos' group and their recent form, a trip to the round of 16 doesn't look like a bad bet.
Group: A (Germany, Poland, Ecuador).
Key match in group stage: June 9 vs. Germany. Costa Rica would love to get a point in its first game, which is also the tournament opener. Given the Germans' dismal defensive performances of late, the Ticos have a real chance to start the Cup off with a bang in what should be one of the more entertaining matches of the tourney.