Costa Rica, the little guys that could
Without a doubt this is Costa Rica’s biggest moment ever on the world stage.
The tiny country that odds-makers predicted would not score a single goal has knocked off football giants Uruguay, Italy and Greece and leisurely played England to a yawn-inducing draw and now stands among the top eight in the world.
Yes, Costa Rica’s is the team that attacked the least in this World Cup but it is also the team that attacked most effectively.
And, were it not for a fortuitous 91st-minute rebound for Greece, with Costa Rica playing a man down, it would have continued to be the team with the fewest goals scored against it.
If, somehow, Costa Rica manages to pull off yet another major upset victory and knock off Holland, coach Jorge Pinto’s combination of suffocating defence and furious, wholesale counter attacks, whenever a moment of weakness is detected it will most certainly be studied by future tacticians.
What few people understand is how perfectly and naturally this strategy ties into Costa Rican culture, its history and idiosyncrasies.
To start, Costa Rican’s call themselves “Ticos” which best translates into English as “the little guys.”
This comes from the unique (some say cute) way Costa Ricans pronounce the Spanish diminutive suffix “ito.”
“Pitico” (little whistle), the say, instead of “pitito,” when the referee blows down a play with anything less than total conviction.
But in recent decades “Tico” has come to connote the idea of the “underdog,” as what had traditionally been the backwater of the existing backwater of Central America emerged as a global leader in rainforest conservation, sustainable tourism and scientific investigation… with a Nobel Peace Prize, an Olympic gold medal and its own plasma rocket scientist-astronaut thrown into the mix.
Personally, I feel that not enough can be said about this remarkable nation of 4.5 million, its charm, beauty, and humble-yet-proud and tenacious people who value public education and public healthcare above having an army and an extreme, persistent underclass, which has overcome so much to count among the highest life expectancy and highest literacy rates in Latin America.
There is a certain style, too, that goes along with the Tico “lull-you-into-a-false-sense-of-security” identity.
Costa Ricans rarely seek direct confrontation because that would mean almost-certain defeat, but they will find a way to succeed, just as they found a way to keep their state banks, telecommunications and power companies when all the rest of debt-strapped Latin America was privatising under pressure from the US-directed IMF and World Bank (with the predictable even wider gulf between rich and poor).
And Ticos are remarkably confident in their ability to do this.
The Tico national hero is not a George Washington or a Simon Bolivar, some great general or warrior who single handedly slaughtered the barbarians.
He is Juan Santamaria, a boy really, who patiently waited until nightfall and, while the army of filibuster-marauder William Walker slept, calmly approached the central command building with a torch and lit it. Walker never recovered and was driven back to Honduras where he was eventually captured and executed.
Sure there are things to gripe about in Costa Rica, its traffic (where isn’t this true?) corruption and a certain obstinacy in the face of eminently solvable problems among them.
In the bigger picture, however, Costa Ricans continue to surprise and amaze with their ability to recognise good ideas and run with them (and score) while, at the same time, taking a wondrous amount of time to actually stop and celebrate, and appreciate life to its fullest.
All of this is summed up by the decades-surviving Costa Rican slogan: “Pura Vida” – Pure Life!
Stories count, mythology counts, in the deeper psychology of a nation and this World Cup will most definitely serve to reinforce the already-existing notion among Costa Ricans that size isn’t everything, that they can stand as David among Goliaths, ecstatically, vibrantly, celebrating their mighty smallness.
So, viva Costa Rica. Pura vida, pura vida, pura vida.