by Greg Melikov
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Costa Rica didn't have an easy time qualifying for the 2006 World Cup despite being heavily favored.
At first, the team was defeated last year 2-1 by Mexico and 3-0 by the United States on its home grounds. It drew 0-0 with Trinidad and Tobago, and then whipped Panama 2-1.
Then the talented squad lived up to its billing and started playing well, beating the U.S., 3-0; Trinidad and Tobago, 2-0; Guatemala, 3-2; and Panama again, 3-1.
"We're in Germany, by God," Costa Rica coach Alexandre Guimaraes said. "This is a victory for Costa Rica, and we should all celebrate."
The coach believes his team can make it to the second round, adding that the only threat is Germany, he told the Costa Rican daily newspaper La Nacion. "We are neither bigger nor smaller than Poland and Ecuador."
Guimaraes said, "I would have to be off my head to be thinking of dramatic changes with (months) to go before the Cup. But, yes, we have identified some positions where we could make some small changes. Our options are open."
The Brazilian-born coach, who helped lead Costa Rica into the second round in '90, is an adept tactician and preaches team ethics.
In the '02 World Cup, Costa Rica failed to advance to the second round because it was unluckily seeded with eventual champions Brazil and third finalist Turkey.
In the first of friendly 2006 World Cup tune-ups in March, Costa Rica was outclassed in the first half by Iran, giving up three goals. A more focused team fought back to score two goals in the second half, losing 3-2 in Tehran.
A month earlier in Oakland, Costa Rica -- despite being outplayed in the first half -- defeated South Korea, 1-0. The Koreans kept the pressure on throughout the second half, but couldn't breach the defense.
"After our first match, everything will start to make much more sense," Guimaraes said. "The (opening) match against Germany will be the biggest in our history because of the atmosphere that we are going to have.
"We played against Brazil twice in the World Cup and we knew that the world was watching us and this time is even more important. Everyone had hoped we would play the first game against Germany, now we have to work to win it."
This year's squad appears to be talented. It includes midfielder Ronald Gomez. The journeyman has played for several teams on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gomez is a finisher who can turn a game with a fearsome left foot. He's quick, has a good shot and is capable of holding up the ball. " (We) have a good mix of players with experience of playing abroad and at the World Cup, and a handful of promising youngsters."
Other outstanding players include:
Veteran striker Paulo Wanachope, undisputed star of Costa Rican soccer. He is a prolific scorer, notching 43 goals in 67 international matches. Walter Centano, a veteran of a dozen seasons, has good technique and the ability to pass and open defenses. The creative midfielder regularly takes the free kicks.
Jafet Soto, a midfielder who has a cultured right foot to go with his vast experience, is a regular on the national team. He's a solid defender and skillfully moves the ball out of danger.
Christian Bolanos, a young winger who's at home on either the right or left of midfield, displays a dangerous combination of technique and pace.
Gilberto Martinez, another key member of the squad, has proved himself a skillful defender as well as fearless.
Ron Myle, a defender who player in the '04 Olympics, scored a game-winning goal in a key qualifying match last fall.
Goalkeeper Jose Porras, whose nickname is "Super Poras," is an established star enjoying the best phase of his career.
Costa Rica World Cup 2006 Odds: While Costa Rica is seeded second in Group A, the odds are 450/1 to win the tournament, according to the average odds of 19 sports books.
Strengths: Having the sound tactics of the coach and the discipline to carry them out, the "Ticos," as they are called in their country, could cause and upset or two.
Weaknesses: Tightening up defensively is the No. 1 priority if Costa Rica is to compete with Germany.
Costa Rica 2006 World Cup Outlook: A tricky opponent that could produce a surprise victory in the first round, but isn't likely to make a bigger impact.
Costa Rica 2006 World Cup First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Friday, June 9, Group 1A Germany vs. Group 2A Costa Rica, in Munich, 6 p.m.
Thursday, June 15, Group 4A Ecuador vs. Group 2A Costa Rica, in Hamburg, 3 p.m.
Tuesday, June 20, Group 2A Costa Rica vs. Group 3A Poland, Hanover, 4 p.m.
Updated Costa Rica 2006 World Cup News: