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Costa Rica's Cinderella fairytale faces history-seeking Greek roadblock

Mikey Stafford reports from Recife, where both sides are aiming to achieve historical feats.

Costa Ricans have called for head coach Jorge Luis Pinto to become the nation's president.
Costa Ricans have called for head coach Jorge Luis Pinto to become the nation's president.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

Mikey Stafford reports from Recife.

LOST IN THE romance of Costa Rica’s swashbuckling qualification for the second round at the expense of three former world champions is the fact that it is Greece, and not the Central Americans, who are in uncharted territory here.

All Scotsmen recall Costa Rica qualifying for the last 16 at Italia ’90, but for Greece this evening’s match at Arena Pernambuco is a first taste of World Cup knock-out football at the third attempt.

Greek football and romance do not really go together though. Their unlikely triumph at Euro 2004 is still viewed by many as some sort of cunning crime against football, rather than one of modern sport’s great fairytales.

Greece were wiped out 10-0 on aggregate in 1994, losing all three matches, and failed to escape their group at their second World Cup in South Africa four years ago, yet Costa Rica are the Cinderella story most neutrals want to see continue into a quarter-final chapter.

A lot of that has to do with the manner of their qualification. Costa Rica battered Uruguay and then shocked Italy to seal qualification from Group D before a 0-0 draw with an already eliminated England secured top spot.

Greece, in contrast, got scalped by Colombia in their opening game and drew 0-0 with an average Japan before defeating Ivory Coast with an injury-time penalty.

So far, so Greece.

Brazil Soccer WCup Greece Ivory Coast Greek players celebrate the victory over the Ivory Coast. Source: Natacha Pisarenko

But the bare details disguise the tactical excellence of Fernando Santos’s team against Ivory Coast. Their opening day capitulation to Colombia aside Greece are — as always — very compact and well-organised defensively.

While they will miss Panagiotis Kone in midfield if he does not recover from injury, wily old Giorgios Karagounis will be at the heart of a side geared towards quick counter-attacks.

With their ability to break swiftly via their full-backs Jose Holebas and Vasilis Torisidis, the Greek game looks tailor made to deal with Costa Rica’s high-energy, high-pressing tactics.

Only the Netherlands committed more fouls than Jorge Luis Pinto’s Costa Rica during the group stages and theirs is a fairytale based on organisation, hard work and incredible fitness. If Greece are to stop Cinderella going to the ball they will have to remain switched on for 90 minutes, if not 120.

Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell have been the headline-grabbers for Pinto’s team, but both were loaned out by their Premier League parent clubs last season, Fulham and Arsenal respectively.

Levante goalkeeper Keylor Navas and Mainz full-back Junior Diaz are the only starters to feature in Europe’s top leagues leading up to the World Cup, with three more in Scandinavia, one in the MLS and two at home in Costa Rica.

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Brazil Soccer WCup Costa Rica England Joel Campbell, contracted to Arsenal, has been one of the stand-out players for Costa Rica. Source: Matt Dunham

The CONCACAF qualifiers, like Greece, are showing what can be achieved by unheralded players if they are well coached and disciplined.

It is little wonder this country of 4.7 million people is getting excited, with the president Luis Guillermo Solis leading a victory parade of thousands in the capital San Jose after the win over Italy.

The fans lucky enough to be in Brazil greeted the team bus in Recife by calling for Pinto to replace Solis as the nation’s leader.

Not yet, not yet,” said the coach yesterday, seemingly delaying any move into politics until after the World Cup at least. “We are not just trying to beat Greece. We want to go on. The words of the crowd make me feel proud.”

It’s quite a turnaround for a coach who failed to gain qualification for the 2006 World Cup during his first spell in charge and he understands the sense of euphoria and optimism that is gripping his homeland.

“We want to write history for our country. Costa Rica is enjoying this to the maximum but we are concentrated on our work and we want to do things right,” said Pinto who, like Jose Mourinho, having never played football himself professionally, is considered a student of tactics.

“We will continue doing what we have been doing against other opponents, we defended well against Italy. We will defend well, it is our technique, we never try to lag behind,” said Pinto.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Group D - Italy v Costa Rica - Arena Pernambuco Many neutrals will be joining in with Costa Rica's supporters. Source: Adam Davy

“We have to try and structure the match ourselves. The Greeks are well balanced, we won’t just defend. We will play the match the way we have before, by keeping our balance on the pitch.”

Earlier this week Kostas Manolas, who along with Sokratis Papastathopoulos has marshalled the Greek defence brilliantly, suggested that Costa Rica are a lesser team than Ivory Coast but coach Santos yesterday insisted that Greece, more than anyone, know the dangers of underestimating a supposedly unfancied team.

They were not truly unknown. I knew them, if you were paying attention to football you knew it,” said the Portuguese native. “In the Group of Death, they were really discredited by all observers. It was astonishing all those that issued opinions, three world champions [to decide Group D] but they showed the opposite.

“It was the same with Greece in 2004, an unknown team who reached the final stages and achieved historical feats. This is one more reason for us Greeks to know we must pay attention to them. Costa Rica are here because they are a great team.”

One team is going to achieve an historical feat today and it might just be the Central American Cinderellas, but Greece’s panto villains won’t make it easy.

Probable teams:

Costa Rica (5-4-1): Keylor Navas; Cristian Gamboa, Oscar Duarte, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Michael Umana, Junior Diaz; Bryan Ruiz, Yeltsin Tejeda, Celso Borges, Christian Balanos; Joel Campbell.

Greece (4-3-3): Orestis Karzenis; Vasilis Torosidis, Kostas Manolas, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Jose Holebas; Giannis Maniatis, Giorgos Karagounis, Andreas Samaris; Dimitris Salpingidis, Giorgos Samaras, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos.

Referee: Benjamin Williams (Australia).

Kick-off: 5pm (9pm GMT), Arena Pernambuco, Recife.

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Mikey Stafford

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