A roller coaster ride

Costa Rica stunned the football world in its very first match on the big stage, upsetting Scotland 1-0 in Italia 90. Though the team lost its next match to Brazil, it pulled off another upset, a 2-1 victory over Sweden, to enter the Round of 16.

Costa Rica’s first World Cup, in 1990, remains its best. Under the Yugoslavian manager, Bora Milutinovic, who had been in charge of Mexico at the previous finals, it reached the Round of 16, becoming on the way the first Central American country to win a World Cup match in Europe.

Costa Rica, a nation of only 2.8 million people at the time, stunned the football world in its very first match on the big stage, upsetting Scotland 1-0 in Genoa. The Scots had big names at the time — Alex McLeish, Ally McCoist and the forward Mo Johnston, whose move a year previously to Rangers, being a Roman Catholic and having played for Celtic in his youth, had created enormous bitterness among both sets of supporters. “We have nothing to fear from Costa Rica,” the Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh had declared before the game. His team would not advance out of the group stages.

Juan Cayasso scored the game’s only goal in the 49th minute, finishing off a clever back-heeled pass from Claudio Jara, while Scotland failed to convert a number of chances. “Cayasso’s goal was made to stand up by an outstanding display of goalkeeping by Luis Conejo,” the Associated Press noted in its report. “Scotland could not beat Conejo, whose diving arm save on Mo Johnston’s point-blank shot in the 65th minute was his best stop.”

A narrow 0-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil followed, Conejo shining again, before Costa Rica sprang another surprise in the final group game, beating Sweden 2-1 to book its place in the next round. The captain, Roger Flores, headed in the equaliser in the second half before the substitute, Hernan Medford, struck three minutes from time. That was as good as it got, though. In the Round of 16, with Conejo absent, Costa Rica’s weakness in the air was exposed as Tomas Skuhravy scored a hat-trick of headers to put Czechoslovakia in the quarterfinals.

Los Ticos failed to make the next two editions, before reaching the 2002 World Cup in emphatic fashion, qualifying in first place from the CONCACAF region. Once there, Costa Rica saw off China — coached, incidentally, by Milutinovic, whose fifth team it was — comfortably and earned a late point against Turkey. Needing a draw in the final group game with Brazil to qualify for the next round, Costa Rica conceded thrice in the first 38 minutes before clawing its way back to 3-2. Paulo Wanchope hit the bar and had a shot cleared off the line, before Brazil shut the door with two more goals. The result allowed Turkey to progress (and quite far eventually) on goal difference.

Costa Rica reached the 2006 finals in Germany on the strength of a settled squad, with the veterans Wanchope and Ronald Gomez and the young Christian Bolanos, who caught the eye at the 2005 Club World Cup. But the tournament itself was a disaster, the side failing to gain a single point and finishing with a goal difference of minus 6.

Direct qualification to the 2010 World Cup was denied by a last-second goal by the USA, and the play-off ended in defeat to Uruguay.

* * * Conejo the great

Perhaps the best-known Costa Rican footballer, Paulo Wanchope, played in two World Cups, scoring 45 goals in 73 appearances for the national team. He moved to Derby County from his native country in 1997, scoring a spectacular solo goal at Old Trafford on debut. He then spent a year at West Ham United, netting 12 goals and forming a strong partnership with Paolo di Canio. Wanchope moved to Manchester City, where his time was largely marred by injury, but he still managed to score important goals.

Luis Conejo's heroic performances in goal at the 1990 World Cup enshrined him as one of Costa Rica's all-time greats. His critical saves saw Costa Rica enter the Round of 16, where, in his absence due to injury, the team lost. Alongside Walter Zenga, Conejo was widely regarded as the best goalkeeper of the tournament. He played for Albacete in Spain, a club notably rescued from financial crisis by Andres Iniesta in 2011, and served as goalkeeping coach of the national side briefly.