Not every team can conjure attacks out of thin air with grace and panache. Not every goal is a firecracker that enchants the neutral fan. Not every game can be an instant classic, even if this rollicking World Cup thus far has made it seem so. See if Costa Rica cares one bit about it.
Costa Rica gets to continue its dreamlike run at this World Cup after defeating Greece in a somnolent 1-1 game that had a penalty shootout tacked on as an exclamation point. Hailing from a country with a population roughly equal to Brooklyn and Queens combined, the Ticos have kept outlasting soccer titans and traditional powers to advance to their first World Cup quarterfinal. (Highlights)
"To the people in Costa Rica, those at home and on the streets, this is for you," coach Jorge Luis Pinto said.
The team's next game, its next huge challenge, comes Saturday in Salvador against the Netherlands, which rallied Sunday afternoon to secure a thrilling late win over Mexico in Fortaleza. Little of that excitement carried over into the game here. (World Cup Fixtures)
Greece's plan revolved entirely around whipping crosses from the sidelines, and most of them badly missed their targets. Costa Rica was slightly more imaginative, but a second-half red card stripped them of ambition.
The goals, which both came after halftime, imbued the game with more entertainment, and things got better still as each team tired and lost its shape.
The game then had an exciting climax - albeit in the contrived form of a penalty shootout. Several players were keeled over in exhaustion when extra time ended, and Greece's coach, Fernando Santos, was banished from the field for arguing with the referee. After seven expert kicks, the turning point came on the eighth, by Greece's Theofanis Gekas. He directed the ball toward the left post, but Costa Rica's goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, who made several crucial saves late in the game, lunged to his right and parried the ball away with his left palm.
Michael Umana then stepped up and finished the job, lofting a ball just under the crossbar, a shade left of center, just out of the reach of Greece's goalkeeper, Orestis Karnezis. The shot sent his teammates streaming on the field.
"It was only a dream for us," Navas said of the victory, "a dream that became a reality."
After failing to qualify for the 2010 tournament, Costa Rica had the apparent misfortune to be drawn into Group D, with Uruguay, England and Italy - three of the only eight countries that have ever won the World Cup.
But they made it out, as Pinto outmaneuvered his more famous counterparts. The game, as bland as it was, could be seen as another tactical victory for Pinto.
It took until the 52nd minute for the first spark, as Costa Rica's captain, Bryan Ruiz, sneaked a curling, left-footed shot from about 20 yards into the bottom-right corner of the goal. It was a skilled effort, taken first-time off a pass from Christian Bolanos, and very much a goal to match the game: rolling slowly, seemingly forever, until it burrowed precisely into the net.
Costa Rica, tentative already, shifted into even more of a defensive mind-set after Oscar Duarte was shown a second yellow card by the referee, Benjamin Williams of Australia, in the 66th minute. Costa Rica plopped all but one player behind the ball and awaited the final whistle like the final bell of a school day.
The seconds ticked away, and things were inching toward an inevitable conclusion, until the first minute of added time, when Sokratis Papastathopoulos had a loose ball bounce neatly to the middle of the penalty area, where he stood unmarked. He swung his right leg at the ball, sending it bouncing across the goal line, setting off hysterical celebrations on the field and sideline.
Santos thought his players could have done more to be patient and exploit their numerical advantage. He predicted Costa Rica would fall out of the tournament soon, but he praised the team, too.
"I think Costa Rica has to be congratulated," he said, "because they've been perfect so far."
Sunday's game was the fifth and final game scheduled to be played at the towering Arena Pernambuco, which faces an uncertain future. A local club, Nautico, will take over as a primary tenant in the building, and there are hopes that the surrounding area, a 40-minute drive from Recife's downtown, can develop into a sports and commercial hub. But Nautico thus far has drawn only a few thousand fans in the first home games it has held in the stadium, which holds over 46,000.
It was a mishmash crowd on Sunday afternoon. Costa Rica fans were the loudest, singing songs to invigorate their team. There seemed to be just as many local Brazilian fans, though, dressed in the host nation's canary yellow, periodically starting loud chants of "Brazil!" Greece fans were a small minority, flecks of blue and white in the stands.
The many neutral fans, presumably bored, booed the teams off the field at halftime and whistled loudly when they reappeared to start the second half. In a country known for its beautiful soccer, the two teams produced the equivalent of a street fight. But ask the Costa Ricans if they care.
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