Preview: Can Costa Rica make noise, and provide an upset, in Group E?

2022 FIFA World Cup Costa Rica Group E

Pundits, fans and even international footballers alike seemed to have one sure bet during the first few days of the FIFA World Cup. Not many people expected Argentina to lose to Saudi Arabia in their opener. In fact, many had Argentina winning the whole tournament.

Of course, they still can win the whole tournament. It’s just one match in the group stage, after all. However, Argentina made their road a lot more complicated. There are teams, though, that see the result as a positive. Those under-the-rug teams, those being brushed off for the bigger and more powerful sides.

Teams like the Ticos of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is easily facing the hardest group of the World Cup: Group E. The Ticos were drawn into a group with tournament favorites Spain, champions of 2014 Germany and the Asian underdog Japan. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for pundits, fans and footballers on the international stage to put Costa Rica in fourth place in the group, in predictions, with zero points.

However, the Argentina loss to Saudi Arabia has to give a team like Costa Rica hope. The Ticos will take on powerhouse side Spain at 11 a.m. ET on Nov. 23. This is a game that could very well be like England’s 6-2 victory over Iran, or, as Saudi Arabia showed, could be a shocking upset.

The World Cup, as with football altogether, is unpredictable. We take a look at how Costa Rica can upset and players to watch for against Spain.

How Costa Rica got the World Cup

Costa Rica fought nail-and-tooth for their spot in the FIFA World Cup. The Ticos finished in fourth place on the Concacaf table, behind Canada, Mexico and the United States. In a playoff match against New Zealand, Costa Rica prevailed, 1-0, to punch their ticket to Qatar. Joel Campbell, the team’s leading attacker, scored the game-winning goal early, in the 3rd minute.

The Octagonal was where things got interesting for Costa Rica.

Costa Rica got off to a rocky start, with a draw against Panama and a loss to México. To round out the September window, La Sele tied with Jamaica, 1-1. After an early goal from Jimmy Marín in the 3rd minute, Jamaica tied thanks to Shamar Nicholson in the 47th minute.

It didn’t get much better in October for the Ticos. Costa Rica tied, scoreless with Honduras, earned their first win against El Salvador and then fell to the United States in Columbus, Ohio. Costa Rica got on the board early, just one minute in, but an own goal from Leonel Moreira — who did not make the World Cup roster — doomed them.

So, after six games, Costa Rica were sitting in poor position with three draws, one win and two losses. The November window was where Costa Rica prevailed, kicking off a strong unbeaten run. In November 2021, Costa Rica topped Honduras (2-1), Panama (1-0) for six points. In the early 2022 window, Costa Rica tied México (0-0) and earned a win, on the road, against Jamaica (1-0) for four points.

Costa Rica moved up the table and then the final Concacaf World Cup qualifying window saw La Sele pick up a valuable nine points with wins over Canada (1-0), El Salvador (on the road, 2-1) and the United States (at home in San José, 2-0).

Costa Rica and the United States actually finished with 25 points each, but Costa Rica had a lesser goal differential than the U.S. (+11 to +5). The Ticos then jetted off, in June, to Qatar for the inter-confederation playoff against New Zealand, handing the Oceania Confederation team a loss.

Players to Watch for Costa Rica

Taking a look at each general position (goal, defense, midfield and forwards), here are a few players to watch for the Ticos.

Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas — One of the most renowned goalkeepers in the world, Keylor Navas was a Real Madrid legend before taking over the starting job at Paris Saint Germain. Navas, 35, has more than 100 appearances for Costa Rica and is undoubtedly the team’s leader. Navas is one of the few, too, with World Cup experience. Costa Rica is in an extremely tough group, but Navas is no stranger to a lot of their European-based players. He’ll give the Ticos a fighting chance in goal.

Defense: Juan Pablo Vargas — Vargas, who plays his club soccer for Millonarios in Colombia, has 12 caps to his name for Costa Rica. He was the player that helped Costa Rica give the U.S. a run for their money back on March 30 in that qualifier. He scored the first of the two goals, marking his first international tally. Since the beginning of 2021, Vargas has been a consistent call up on the roster, and since the summer he’s been a regular starter. He’ll look to have a big impact on defense.

Midfield: Gerson Torres — Sure, it could have been easy to say captain Bryan Ruiz or veteran Yeltsin Tejeda, but Gerson Torres should catch eyes at the World Cup. The young midfielder, at only 25, has 13 appearances to his name and one goal. While defenders will flank around Ruiz, Tejeda and other veteran Celso Borges, Torres will have opportunities to pick up the ball and get a few good looks at goal. Torres scored his lone goal for Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying in Costa Rica’s 2-1 win over Honduras in November — one of the games that propelled Costa Rica to a strong finish. Torres plays his club football with Herediano, making more than 160 appearances. He went on loan to Liga MX twice, in 2017 with Club América and in 2018 with Necaxa.

Forward: Joel Campbell — The Costa Rican attacker has been around the world perfecting his craft. Campbell doesn’t score consistently. That’s his biggest issue. However, he has scored big goals in big matches, netting 25 times for Costa rica over 119 appearances. He’s currently with Club León and spent the 2021-22 season on loan with Liga MX side C.F. Monterrey. He played 25 times for Arsenal, but spent a majority of his career on loan with clubs like Betis, Villarreal and Sporting CP. He’s been quietly performing in Mexico. As mentioned, he scored the game-winner against New Zealand to get the Ticos to Qatar. He scored twice in World Cup qualifying, against Jamaica in February and El Salvador in March.

The Ticos and their Group E outlook

Needless to say, Costa Rica didn’t get a friendly draw in Group E. As LWOF’ Alex Richards fairly wrote, it will likely be Spain and Germany that battle for the top spot. However, and this cannot be said enough, as Saudi Arabia proved, anything can happen. La Sele needs to stick to their game plan and, above all, the Ticos cannot bunker down and play defensively for 90 minutes and solely rely on a few counterattack opportunities. Luis Fernando Suárez’ men need to be proactive in the attack and pressure their opposing defenders.

Costa Rica has a chance to get a draw or a result over Japan, and Germany is a side that is aging more than they are getting younger. Time will tell, as Group E kicks off tomorrow.