Commentary | Rejoice in Costa Rica's wild World Cup ride

June 21, 2014 

Who says upsets only occur in March Madness?

The shocker of the 2014 FIFA World Cup occurred Friday when Costa Rica defeated Italy 1-0 to assure itself safe passage to the second round.

Yes, you read that correct. The little minnows from Costa Rica reached up and smacked big, bad, tradition-rich Italy in the mouth with the biggest victory in its history.

Welcome to the FIFA Unpredictable World Cup.

This is what happens when the Spanish Era ends after just two matches, a humiliating exit for the reigning world champions.

Costa Rica earned their upset special tag when they knocked off Uruguay -- a semifinalist in 2010 -- in its opening match.

The follow up was even more memorable when Bryan Ruiz scored the lone goal in the 44th minute.

"I think that … we dreamt about this and we had the belief that we would do it," said Ruiz on camera after the match. "A lot of people didn't have that faith. We are in the group of death, but today I think the dead ones are the others and we got the qualification we anticipated. And this is a dream. … The truth is this is a dream. It's something incredible, but we aren't happy with this, we want more."

That dream, though, carries more weight than Costa Rica's national pride. It also raises the profile of soccer in the region and domestically here in the United States.

American fans should rejoice in Costa Rica's advancement to the knockout phase, the first time the tiny Central American country has gotten this far since 1990.

To put the achievement in perspective, the Ticos didn't even qualify in 2010 and were ranked No. 31 out of 32 teams in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup after losing three matches by a 9-3 margin.

Costa Rica became the third CONCACAF team, after the United States in 1930 and Mexico in 2002, to win its first two World Cup games.

The CONCACAF region has long been considered weak by world standards, far below Europe and South America.

There are only three guaranteed World Cup berths for North, Central American and Caribbean teams to vie for. This year, Mexico qualified as the region's fourth squad by defeating New Zealand in the CONCACAF-OFC (Oceania) playoff.

But with Costa Rica's advancement, the region's coefficient (the number used to determine how many berths are awarded during each World Cup cycle) should get a boost.

It may not alter the immediate future, but it should be a building block to improve the region's standing down the road.

The triumph also raises the awareness of Major League Soccer and Costa Rica's top league as a viable option. Granted, they are not on par with England's Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga, but Costa Rica's win with MLS-based or Costa Rica Primera Division players against an Italy side featuring nearly all Serie A (Italy's top league) players, ended up proving that the region's leagues can hang with the best.

And they did it with a high line on defense to baffle the Italians, rather than the usual bunker-styled, drop everyone behind the ball approach.

It produced the memorable moment of this unpredictable World Cup. While there have been shocking upsets in the past, Brazil 2014 is shaping up as anyone's tournament. Countries as small as Costa Rica (4.8 million population) can compete with the juggernauts like Italy (61 million), and they can win.

The gap has closed, and CONCACAF is grinning with the whole world watching.

Jason Dill, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7017 or via email at jdill@bradenton.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason__Dill.

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