Collectively, we are the whipping boys of world football.
In nearly a century of World Cup play, none of the 41 nations comprising the CONCACAF region has ever made it past the quarterfinal stage.
The U.S. and Mexico are reliably workmanlike. They save us from outright embarrassment. Canada and everyone else hide in their average-height shadow.
Saturday was the rare day when the one continent that hasn’t fully embraced the game got to stretch its legs on the world stage.
Costa Rica’s (28th ranked in the world) vibrant 3-1 victory over Uruguay (7th ranked) represents one of the great upsets in recent Cup history. You have to reach back to Switzerland over Spain four years ago to think of an example. In that contest, Switzerland scored a fortunate goal and then lashed themselves to a tree trunk, surviving a Spanish hurricane. That was a function of luck.
This was a minnow tearing off a latex suit and revealing the piranha underneath. Costa Rica outclassed the fourth-place finishers from 2010 in every phase of the game. Coming into this, Uruguay arrived with a reputation for experienced savvy.
They come out of looking old and broken.
Again and again, Costa Rica streaked by their elders. And you know what they say – speed muertes.
Uruguay were up to their familiar tricks early. A blatant handball in the box by an Uruguayan – shades of their knockout round victory over Ghana in South Africa – went uncalled.
A few minutes later, a Costa Rican defender wrapped his arms around Uruguay’s Diego Lugano during a corner kick. Lugano embellished his fall, but the call was an easy one. Edinson Cavani’s spot kick made it 1-0.
Then we settled in for an awful grind. Through most of the first half, this looked like a peculiarity at the early stages of this tournament – a crushing bore of a game.
But Costa Rica began to come on late. They continued that trend through the second half. Uruguay looked stunned. Didn’t anyone give these guys the script? Didn’t Costa Rica know they were supposed to be the red-headed mule of Group D?
The man leading the Latin American charge was 22-year-old Joel Campbell. He scored the tying goal, stuck the ball under his jersey and went to his bench sucking his thumb – a lovely and nonsensical collection of metaphors.
Throughout, he burned past Uruguayan defenders with regularity, repeatedly deploying a long-range shot that may already be one of the best in the game.
For much of the world, it was one of those lovely moments on this stage, a ‘Who the hell is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him?’ moment.
Campbell is on Arsenal’s books, but plays in Greece because he can’t get a British work permit. Something tells me the paperwork on that just got a little easier. Because if Arsenal can’t figure it out, some other European giant will.
Campbell went into the game with a market value of something in the range of $7-million. Over the course of two hours, that doubled. At least. That’s the power of one great performance on this platform. It changes professional lives.
With Campbell giving them fits, the rest of Uruguay’s form fell apart. Over and over, they botched the defence of corners and set pieces. That’s how the second goal arrived, at an undefended far post.
Then they fell apart entirely. Costa Rica’s Marco Urena ran by the fogeys on the Uruguay backline. Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera foolishly rushed out to defend an indefensible angle. 3-1.
The two other teams in the stacked group, Italy and England, will now have to entirely recalibrate their artillery ranges. Uruguay isn’t their competition. Costa Rica is.
Can they compete with Europe’s elite? Well, if the same team that played Saturday shows up, they absolutely can. No team defends speed very well.
The capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, is a 73-hour drive from Ottawa. It’s probably stretching it to say that we share in this victory. But on a more macro level – as the outsiders in the world’s most popular sport – we’re right there with them.
Nobody gave them a chance coming in. That sounds familiar.
For as long as this ride lasts, in this corner at least, we are all Costa Rican.