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Costa Rica had everything thrown at it in Sunday’s Round of 16 match, but nothing could stop Los Ticos, and “the little team that could” held on to win in penalty kicks and earn its first bid to the FIFA World Cup Quarterfinals. Costa Rica will face the Netherlands, who topped Mexico on a last-minute penalty kick, and will hope to continue the Cinderella-story journey through the remaining knockout rounds.
Losing Óscar Duarte to a second yellow card in the 66th minute put a damper on Costa Rica’s spirits, but the team was already up 1-0 thanks to the powerful left foot of Bryan Ruiz. The defense doubled down and held off Greece until the 91st minute, when Keylor Navas blocked a shot from Theofanis Gekas right to the feet of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who drove it home over the falling Navas’ head.
The disappointment of the Ticos was evident in the face of every player and fan. The team would have to play an additional 30 minutes with only 10 players, trying to hold off an escalating Greek attack while praying for a glimpse of a chance at goal itself. Ruiz and Joel Campbell got more than a glimpse in extra time, but were just too exhausted to put the ball home.
Greece was given a gift with its stoppage-time equalizer, and should have been able to take the lead and the win in extra time, but just could not get past Navas. The goalkeeper was everywhere, tipping balls over the crossbar and punching out crosses, playing through a tweaked shoulder on a dive and an injured knee on a challenge. The extra 30 minutes ended with the score still at one-all, and the teams prepared for penalty kicks.
Per a seldom-used FIFA World Cup rule, Greece had to select one of its 10 field players to not participate in the shootout, in order to make things fair with Costa Rica being down a man. Penalty kicks are not the most popular part of the sport, especially for the casual fan, but the strategy and technique involved for both kicker and keeper is a big part of what makes football the beautiful game. Costa Rica showed why having that ability wins games, and each player slotted their goal home almost effortlessly, their faces showing no fear has they held on to dispense with Greece in penalties and move on from the World Cup Round of 16 for the first time.
The fatal mistake for Greece lay in its overly-defensive, laid-back style of play. The team seemed to be playing to not lose, rather than to win, up until the moment when Ruiz put the first tally on the board. Finally, in the 52nd minute of play, Greece picked up its attack and put real pressure on Costa Rica’s defense. The pressure paid off late when Sokratis drove in the equalizer. Greece had every chance in the world to take the lead in extra time, with an additional player over the clearly demoralized Costa Ricans, but wasted the chances. Piratiko truly lost when it allowed the game to go to penalty kicks, leveling the playing field once more for the Ticos.
Keylor Navas won Man of the Match, and the goalkeeper deserved it, making ridiculous saves over and over to keep his team alive. He made the ultimate save on Gekas’ penalty shot, diving left to block the ball wide. Michael Umaña put the next shot in for Costa Rica to win the game and keep his team in the tournament for at least one more round.
Costa Rica earned its first ever spot in the World Cup Quarterfinals despite going down to 10 men, holding on for nearly an hour to beat Greece in the Round of 16 on penalty kicks. The Ticos will need to cling to that momentum if they want to beat the crusading Dutch team and continue to advance in the tournament.
Commentary by Christina Jones
Read more Guardian Liberty Voice Coverage on the FIFA World Cup Round of 16