World Cup 2014: Costa Rica topping the Group of Death is no fluke

The first five teams to qualify for the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup are The Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and France.

France have pedigree -- they are former World Champions. The Netherlands are the eternal underdogs -- great talent and they enter every tournament with a chance of going all the way. Chile seem to get better with every tournament and even though Pele's World Cup predictions are never great, he still had Colombia as favourites for the 1994 World Cup.

Simply put. Costa Rica, in the eyes of many, are not a natural fit in that group. They are playing in just their fourth World Cup and their opponents last night, Italy -- have four World Cup titles to their name. That is how vast the gulf was.

But going into the game Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had admitted to being afraid of Costa Rica’s combination of “European-style organisation” and the “explosiveness of the Americas.”

 World Cup 2014: Costa Rica topping the Group of Death is no fluke

Costa Rica's Oscar Granados (13) celebrates after the team's 1-0 victory over Italy. AP

Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto has had 19 jobs in 30 years of management and he added some needle to the contest by saying: "I've studied the Italian side for 20 years... Today we are going to beat (Italy)."

As it turned out, it wasn't an empty boast.

In the last round of qualifying in CONCACAF, Costa Rica had conceded the least amount of goals of all the teams by only letting in seven goals in 10 matches. But then again, that was the CONCACAF. Their opponents weren't teams like Italy.

Still Costa Rica came out and played without any fear. They played their brand of football, gave the likes of Andrea Pirlo no time on the ball (he attempted just 33 passes in the 1st half, less than half the number he managed in the 1st half vs England) and even a world class striker like Mario Balotelli managed to get only one clear chance. Italy had just 83 touches in the attacking third, its fewest in a World Cup match over last five tournaments.

After the game, Costa Rica coach Pinto said: "I don’t want to seem like I’m being over-positive, but I honestly think that our defence were simply perfect today. It’s not easy tackling a team of Italy’s quality. It must be said that much of what I now know about the game I owe to Italy, having always followed Italian football. Our players now have to stay cool and keep going."

They were solid in defence and their passing game held together well, even when they moved forward.

Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica captain and the man who scored the winner said, "It was a great win but, on the other hand, it’s worth highlighting that the whole team believed that this was possible, particularly after we beat Uruguay. I think it’s only now, a little after the game, that it's sinking in how much this achievement will mean to the people of Costa Rica."

For Prandelli, the difference was the athleticism.

"When you come up against a side that are more athletic than you, you have to be more organised than them – and we weren’t. Unfortunately, after we conceded the goal we weren’t capable to responding: we tried to create one-on-one situations on the flanks but we never really managed to take advantage of them."

When the names of teams in Group D were first announced, Costa Rica were expected to be fodder for the other big teams in the group. Uruguay, world no.7; Italy, world no.9; and England, world no.10. Instead, they have come out and beaten Uruguay and Italy and can even afford to rest some of their players against England if they so wish to.

Arsenal player Joel Campbell has been a star for them but the others have played their roles to perfection as well. They are well drilled, they are athletic and they counter well -- three qualities that will allow them to compete against any team in the world.

Their performance also shows that how the gap between the big teams and the chasing pack has become much smaller than it was perhaps a decade ago and that can only be good for the game. It means that fewer matches in the World Cup are easy to call; it means everyone -- except perhaps England -- has a chance.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2014 16:50:04 IST