There was a time when distinguishing predator from prey at a World Cup wasn’t too difficult a task. The predator being the European and South American nations and the prey being teams from the CONCACAF region. But that has not been the case in Brazil , where the oft-overlooked CONCACAF teams have made a major statement.
While the European and South American stars may dominate the headlines , the unheralded CONCACAF bunch have been clearing out a nice path to the knockout stages , while claiming many a big scalp along the way. Mexico advanced to the last 16 on Monday night with a 3-1 win over Croatia , while totally written off Costa Rica polished off top spot in Group D on Tuesday with a draw against England. After the USA qualified for the last sixteen, it became the first time three CONCACAF teams advanced from the group stages at the same World Cup.
Few analysts would have predicted the success of the region , but it’s been that kind of tournament , filled with exciting matches and giant-killings. The defending champs will soon be returned home to Spain while a passionate and determined underdog such as Costa Rica has earned more adventures in Brazil.
Against all odds , the CONCACAF sides have grabbed points against the likes of Portugal , Ghana , Brazil , Italy , Uruguay and England. With a blitz of late goals Monday , Mexico nailed down second place in the group and booked their last 16 date with the Dutch on Sunday in Fortaleza. Mexico will be making an impressive fifth straight appearance in the round of 16 , although they have failed to reach the quarterfinals in its previous four ties.
No team in the tournament has turned more heads than the plucky and inspirational Costa Ricans. Oddsmakers slapped the Ticos with long-shot odds , many even pegging them 2,500-to-1 to win the tournament. Costa Rica’s remarkable journey through this World Cup can be summed up by the words of defender Junior Diaz ,
“We dared to dream that we could beat Uruguay and we did….Then we dreamed we could beat Italy and reach the second round and we did. Now we can dream bigger”.
So the Ticos dreams really did come true and their next dream will be to beat fellow underdogs and the similarly unheralded Greeks in Recife on Sunday night. The fear for Costa Rica on Sunday will be for the first time they will be somewhat expected to win a game and reach the quarters. It will be the first time that these Costa Rican players will have to deal with high expectations from pundits and supporters alike but how could you write them after winning a group that contained three former World Cup winners.
CONCACAF , with 41 members stretching from Canada to Panama, has never been considered one of FIFA’s most competitive federations , its standard of football often regarded as several tiers below that of Europe and South America. But CONCACAF football does present some unique challenges that might have helped its representatives for World Cup play.
From country to country , fields can be unpredictable and weather unbearable. And the travel can make buzzing around Brazil for games feel like a leisurely road trip. Speaking about CONCACAF qualification , US manager Jurgen Klinsmann said ,
“Going through CONCACAF , we’re not complaining, We just go into the countries and make the best out of it.”
The United States was the last CONCACAF nation to advance past the last 16 of the World Cup , reaching the 2002 quarterfinals. Before that , no squad from North America , Central America or the Caribbean islands reached the quarters since Mexico in 1986. The USA’s third-place finish in the inaugural tournament of 1930 remains the best finish by a CONCACAF nation.
Even before the field for the last 16 is settled tomorrow , CONCACAF has already sent a strong message to the global soccer community. The four teams competing in the tournament – USA , Costa Rica , Honduras , and Mexico – tied for the most the region has ever sent to the global showpiece.
Costa Rica’s match-up with Greece on Sunday will mark just the second time they have reached the last 16 of a World Cup. The Ticos entered the tournament ranked 28th in the world by FIFA , before upsetting No.7 Uruguay and No.9 Italy and their coach Jorge Luis Pinto has warned rivals that “We don’t want to stop here…It’s only the start”.
CONCACAF had just three guaranteed slots in the 32-team field for Brazil 2014 , but a fourth team – Mexico – did the region proud by toppling New Zealand in a playoff with no little help from a U.S. side that eliminated Panama. Officials of the Federation were hopeful that a strong showing in Brazil would give it leverage to earn four guaranteed spots for Russia 2018. Regardless of how the last 16 games play out , the CONCACAF sides have shown they’ve come a long way and can no longer be overlooked as the prey of the big gun European and South American nations.
Tadhg Creedon , Pundit Arena.