Costa living

World Cup shocks in Concacaf so far include a win for Barbados and a daring bid by the confederation to change its awful name. Mike Woitalla marks your card

Costa Rica reached their first World Cup in 1990. The joke going around the nation at the time went some­thing like this: Costa Rican players ask their coach if they could, when setting up the wall during free-kicks, turn their backs to the ball. The coach says, “Are you frightened of getting hit in the face or the crotch?” The players explain, “No. We just don’t want to miss any of the Brazilian goals.”

And even after they opened the tournament with a 1-0 win over Scotland, the coach Bora Milutinovic claimed he had forbidden his players to ask for auto­graphs from the Brazilians until after the game. But they went down just 1-0 to Brazil – unluckily, to an own goal – then beat Sweden before falling to Czechoslovakia in the second round. 

Costa Rica is so beautiful that Christopher Columbus initially mistook it for the Garden of Eden. Jurassic Park gives you a glimpse of its jungles and rain forests, though the Costa Ricans were far from pleased that the movie referred to a Costa Rican Air Force. The nation has no military forces and is proud of being known as the Switzerland of central America.

When a country of three million goes to the world’s biggest football stage and defeats a couple of European teams, you can imagine the pride that engulfs the land. The jokes cease. Confidence builds. Players like Paulo Wanchope get discovered. Costa Rica’s Italia 90 success could also be seen as a major achievement for the region whose football confederation goes by the acronym of Concacaf.

Thirty-five countries comprise the Confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean (and two of them, Surinam and Guyana, are in South America). Its bosses have even tried to discard the unwieldy name, but their new attempt, “the Football Confederation”, has yet to be recognised by FIFA.

Before Costa Rica’s 1990 feat, Concacaf was best known as the home of the first country to host two World Cups – Mexico in 1970 and 1986. Even those of us who follow Concacaf closely can have trouble figuring out how many teams have played when St Vincent & the Grenadines, Turks & Caicos Islands, St Kitts & Nevis and Antigua & Barbuda face off. (That’s four nations, with a combined population of 244,000.)

Concacaf football may not be considered among the world’s best, but it is among the most intriguing thanks to a potpourri of styles arguably more diverse than in any of the other five confederations. Its giants are Mexico and the United States. The US, fin­ally hav­ing discovered its Latin and African-American talent, is a work in progress worth keeping tabs on. Mexico, with the hemisphere’s richest league, attracts scores of Brazilians and Argentines to its clubs and has acquired the admirable traits of those nations’ football.

Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, rapid and innovative, represent the best of the Caribbean game. Costa Rica and Honduras, Latin nations with significant Caribbean populations, offer a splendid combination of adept ball technique and explosiveness. El Salvador and Guat­emala serve up Latin fare that’s typically high on skill. There’s also Can­ada. They play like Eng­land, but without all the flair.

Concacaf qualifying for the 2002 World Cup began in March with a pro­longed series of preliminary rounds that pared the field down to 12 teams, six of which will qualify for the final group. Three of those will reach the promised land. Trinidad & Tobago have already upset Mexico in a group that sees Canada sinking fast and Panama, predominantly a baseball nation, as hardly threatening. Jamaica and Honduras are poised to progress over El Salvador and St Vincent & the Gren­adines. The US and Costa Rica should pre­vail over Guatemala and Barbados.

Costa Rica haven’t been back to the World Cup finals since 1990, a fact attributable to a haphazardly run FA which has made more than ten coaching changes – often in the mid-stream of success –­ in nine years. Even the 1990 team used three coaches before settling on Milutinovic, the enigmatic Serb who led Mexico in 1986 and has since overseen the US in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998. Milutinovic took over three months before the tournament began and scheduled his pre-World Cup games with Costa Rica away from home to stay out of the axe’s reach.

The man put in charge of the team for its current quest is Gilson Nunez, a Brazilian hired on the recommendation of João Havelange. Nunez admits he didn’t know anything about Costa Rican football before he arrived. He survived a shocking 2-1 loss to Barbados in his qualifying debut but rebounded with wins over the US and Guatemala.

That’s right, Barbados, where domino competitions make the sports pages and Test cricket overshadows football. The Barbadians tried to bolster their World Cup effort by scouring the English League for players, following Jamaica’s example, but ran into a couple of problems. First, citizenship regulations require that if only the player’s mother is Barbadian, the child has to have been born out of wedlock to get a passport. Second, there really aren’t any – unless you count Bristol City’s Greg Goodridge and Millwall’s Michael Gilkes.

Barbados came this far thanks to a win over Cuba, another baseball country, but one where football is steadily gaining popularity. A 7-0 defeat by the US put an end to their hopes while leaving the Americans in a good position to reach the final round along with Costa Rica. But that final round will be tightly contested, Jamaica are showing the form that got them to France 98 and Dwight Yorke’s Trinidad & Tobago could yet become the smallest nation to reach a World Cup. Indeed, the rise of Caribbean football has rejuvenated a region long dominated by Mexico and the US.

The region’s first qualifying tournament, for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, consisted of a single game that required western hemisphere neighbours to square off in Europe. The US beat Mexico in Rome, leaving Mexico stuck in Europe with return tickets not valid for weeks. Now, Concacaf teams play 16 to 20 games ­– twice the number faced by European teams – in qualification. A long process, but it’s easy to enjoy almost every minute of it.

From WSC 164 October 2000. What was happening this month