Recife: There were less than 20 minutes left to play here Friday when a bundle of three balloons - red, white and green, the colors of Italy's flag - floated down from the stands and onto the field.
The balloons snaked slowly around the center circle, past several players who were jogging to join play on the far end of the field. But when the bundle glided into the path of Mario Balotelli, the enigmatic and hugely talented Italian striker, he stopped. Balotelli fixed the balloons at his feet and proceeded to stomp his spikes onto them, one by one, until there were only bits of latex left littered on the grass.
As a metaphor, as a poetic image, it was almost too perfect.
Italy, the world's No. 9 ranked team, came to Arena Pernambuco with a horde of potent attackers and a host of expectations to meet Costa Rica, a team ranked No. 34, a relative nobody on the international stage. But on Friday afternoon, Italy could only aimlessly drift around the grass, while Costa Rica executed its own game plan to perfection.
The Central Americans frustrated their European opponents, sucking the air out of their attack, to achieve a 1-0 victory here that guaranteed their passage to the knockout round of the World Cup.
The Costa Rican players seemed unable to believe it themselves. When the final whistle blew, several of them fell to the ground and buried their heads in the grass, overcome with emotion and fatigue. The team failed to qualify for the World Cup four years ago and last made it out of the opening round 24 years ago. As the players danced around the grass, their coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, stood motionless for a second.
"It is not easy to play Italy," Pinto said about his quiet moment alone. "So I was thanking God, and I was thanking everyone who has supported us."
In the 84-year history of the World Cup, only eight countries have won the tournament. Costa Rica, a nation of less than 5 million people, found itself in Group D with three of them: Italy, England and Uruguay.
But Costa Rica, which beat Uruguay last week, has now qualified ahead of all of them. Costa Rica will play England next week after eliminating it from contention with this victory and can secure the group's top spot with just a draw. Italy and Uruguay will play Tuesday to see who will join Costa Rica in the second round. (In the caseof a draw in that game, Italy would go through on goal difference.)
"After we won against Uruguay, we were really motivated," said captain Bryan Ruiz, whose 44th-minute goal was the game's only tally. "We were convinced this was possible."
Pinto, 61, said he thought his defense played a perfect game. Asked about the unusual five-back formation he deployed, Pinto, an openly devoted fan of Italian soccer, noted that it was popular among Italian clubs like Juventus and that he had seen Cesare Prandelli, Italy's national coach, use it recently.
Costa Rica played a high-pressure style, shifting its defensive line way up the field, essentially daring Italy to dart through. In the 31st minute, Italy's creative midfielder Andrea Pirlo brushed a ball behind the defense, putting Balotelli one-on-one with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. But Balotelli, trying to dink the ball over the keeper's head, pushed it wide.
About a minute later, Balotelli encountered a bouncing ball at the top of the box and elected to drill it out of the air straightaway. But Balotelli's volley went directly at Navas, and Italy would not get a better chance the entire game. In the second half, save for his balloon popping, Balotelli seemed invisible.
Prandelli said his team's pace was too slow to unsettle the Costa Rica defense, while Pinto said it was his very intention to smother Pirlo and Balotelli.
"We had a very precise idea of what he was doing, what his game plan was," Pinto said of Balotelli. "Balotelli is crazy, perhaps. But he's a good player."
Costa Rica complemented its defensive play with a few explosive moments in attack, and the decisive one came just before halftime, a minute after they had a potential penalty kick waved off by the referee.
Some fans in the pro-Costa Rica crowd were still booing the non-call when left back Junior Diaz advanced all the way up the left wing and curled a threatening ball to the far post. Ruiz had made a delayed run from midfield into the box, and as the ball twirled back toward the field, he met it with a running header that clipped the underside of the crossbar before bouncing into the goal.
The entire Costa Rica bench mobbed him near the corner flag to celebrate, just as they would an hour later at the game's conclusion. They had deflated Italy, and they were walking on air.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service