Costa Rica exit World Cup with heads held high
Bloodied but unbowed, Costa Rica leave this World Cup ''full of happiness'' having put their tiny country on the football map and shown the world's greatest footballing nations that you don't have to have superstar players or men who even play in the biggest leagues in the world to make a major impression.
The Ticos crashed out of the World Cup on a hot and sticky Salvador evening on penalties to the Dutch, one of the great names in the global game. In truth their opponents had dominated the game and the Central Americans had relied on the brilliance of their goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, to keep them in the match as wave after wave of orange attacks bore down on his goal.
But their run to the quarterfinals sparks hope for all middling and lesser nations everywhere. With heart, commitment, discipline, order, structure and a handful of creative players any nation can give the big boys a bloody nose on the day.
The Costa Ricans enlivened this World Cup by doing just that. They saw off two World Cup winners and a European champion in Italy, Uruguay and Greece (the latter on penalties themselves) and drew with a third world champion in England.
Along the way Navas and his miserly defence conceded only one goal from open play - and that in stoppage time of their round of 16 match with Greece when they had been playing for the last 20 odd minutes with just 10 men.
The only other goal they conceded, shootouts aside, was from the penalty spot, when Edison Cavani netted for Uruguay to give Los Celestes the lead in their opening group match. Most people watching that afternoon thought that was a harbinger of how things would go for the Ticos through the rest of the tournament: Uruguay would go on to win, and Jorge Luis Pinto's side would be swept away by Italy and England.
How wrong most of us were. Costa Rica fought back to beat Uruguay 3-1, then defeated Italy 1-0 and drew 0-0 with England to top their group and eventually take their place against the Netherlands in a World Cup quarterfinal. There are plenty of nations with much bigger leagues and long footballing traditions who have never got that far.
In reality they were well beaten every where but on the scoreboard by the rampaging Dutch, who on any other day would take several of the numerous chances they created and finished the game off in normal time.
That they didn't was a tribute to Pinto's organising principle, his players self belief and commitment, some luck and the excellence of goalkeeper Navas, a man whose status has increased immeasurably during the three and a bit weeks his team have been involved in this tournament.
So too has the reputation of Pinto, a Colombian who was achieving his life's ambition in taking a team to the World Cup.
The coach, an avowed admirer of Jose Mourinho, created a team that was hard to break down but could also, on its day, break with pace and fluency and cause problems for everyone.
Salvador on Sunday was not its day, but the coach, rightly, says his team of little-known players can take plenty of plaudits from their efforts in this tournament.
''We are hurt but we feel happy,'' was his verdict in the wake of the loss.
''We have done very beautiful things. Many people didn't believe in us, we have played against great powerhouses in football and we have not been beaten, even if we have to leave the tournament.''We still have to improve certain things and we think we will be able to,'' Pinto declared.
''Everyone, players, the association, have shown that we are able to play. We have good tactics, we were here to play football. Sometimes we were able to play sometimes we weren't. That's how it is in football sometimes...we have presented a very dignified positve image of Costa Rican football.''
He was critical of the refereeing of his team's final game, and of the refereeing standard overall.
''I think the refereeing has not been very good. There have been huge mistakes, mistakes that should not happen'' - but philosophical about the manner of his team's loss in a shootout.
''Penalties depend on luck, but that's the way it is. I think we have shown we can offer a good show and we defended very well...we are happy.
''I told my players that I and the whole country was proud. It's not only football, it's attitude and the way they have behaved in all matches.
''We have played five matches and conceded only two goals and we have not only defended, we were not staying in our half all the time. I think Navas has been the best goalkeeper during this World Cup. My dream is to come back.''
And if Costa Rica learns from and builds on this experience they certainly will be back. And no-one will underestimate them next time.