Long, hard road
Costa Rica survives tough qualifying campaignPosted: Friday April 26, 2002 11:55 AM
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- It was a long, hard road to the World Cup for Costa Rica.
After years of frustrating losses, the team took a turn for the better when Alexandre Guimaraes was officially named coach in 2001.
With a philosophy that seemed to say "only one step at a time, and always ahead," the team began to improve, and 2001 ended as one of the most successful in Costa Rica's history.
For the first time in 11 years, Costa Rica made it to soccer's premier tournament, and for the first time the team won five games in a row, including those played outside the country.
The 2-1 victory over Mexico in the famed Azteca stadium was celebrated almost as a World Cup win. No regional rival had been able to achieve the same in a World Cup qualifying game.
Other milestones were the 3-2 win over Honduras after 40 years of losses, and Costa Rica's 2-0 win over the United States on Sept. 5 -- a victory that gave the team its ticket to the World Cup and the United States its third straight loss.
Costa Rica finished last year ranked No. 30, earning it the FIFA "Mover of the Year" award. It closed the World Cup qualifying round with 23 points, followed by Mexico and the United States with 17 each.
"The ascent in 2001 was deserved, and should be respected on the field," Guimaraes said.
However, the spotless qualifying round ended with three of its main players injured: main scorer Paulo Wanchope, captain Reynaldo Parks and veteran Hernan Medford.
"It's an unusual case because we have four or five injuries ... if we weren't the optimists that we are, we would only think about going to play and not to compete," Guimaraes said.
He said the team's defense line has been weakened by the injuries.
But he said that he is "hoping for the best," adding that there are already players that have given sufficient proof of merit" to be included on the official player roster, which must be turned in May 21.
The players, for their part, are ready to risk everything, including their career, in order to compete in soccer's biggest event.
"If I go to the World Cup, it is because I deserve it in this moment," Medford said recently. "I will fight for the spot."
Costa Rica World Cup dreams began in October 1998 with Colombian Francisco "Pacho" Maturana at the helm.
The first bump in the road came almost a year later, when the coach quit, saying the local environment was "unmanageable." He sued the Costa Rican Soccer Federation for money he claimed was still owed to him, and won.
Marvin Rodriguez took over for a few months until Brazilian Gilson Nunez was named in April 2000. Five months later, amid strong criticism, Nunez resigned after failing in his attempt to qualify directly for the World Cup qualifying round, leaving Costa Rica forced to play a rematch against Guatemala.
The incident soured Costa Rica's soccer scene, and no one counted on an improvement. Guimaraes -- one of the players who made history by bringing Costa Rica to its first, and at the time only, World Cup in Italy in 1990 -- was named to lead the team.
With a contract for only one game, he surprised most with a 5-2 win.
The victory marked a new era for Costa Rica.
Left behind was the country's frustrating 2-1 defeat by Barbados on July 16, 2000 -- the start of the World Cup qualifying round. In recent memory is the national party in September, when the country defeated the United States and earned its ticket to the World Cup.