It was mixed fortunes for Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football teams in the World Cup in Brazil over the weekend with one staying in and another cruelly dumped out of the tournament at the last 16 stage.
The whole of Costa Rica is still celebrating beating Greece in a penalty shootout after the match in Recife went into extra time and ended 1-1. Costa Rica qualified for the quarterfinals and play Holland on Saturday.
But Mexico went out controversially after Holland produced an astonishing late comeback. Substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored the winner from a penalty in injury time after Arjen Robben was fouled by Mexico captain Rafael Marquez. Holland had equalized through Wesley Sneijder in the 88th minute.
It was excruciating for Mexico who scored early in the second half through Giovani Dos Santos. They looked likely to hang on for an improbable win until Holland mounted their sensational comeback.
Mexico’s players were distraught, mainly because they felt Robben dived when being awarded the penalty that secured Holland’s victory.
Robben stupidly admitted diving in a post-match interview. The 30-year-old Bayern Munich ace said he did not cheat to win the decisive injury-time penalty but told Dutch TV: “I apologize. In the first half, I took a dive.”
Furious Mexico coach Miguel Herrera accused Robben of diving three times.
In February, FIFA president Sepp Blatter called for retrospective action on players who dive, fake injuries and time waste. FIFA was considering punishing Robben but decided not to.
Meanwhile, Costa Rican spirits are buoyant. Most credit goes to superb keeper Keylor Navas who claims fearless Costa Rica can go on being World Cup world-beaters.
The hero of the penalty shoot-out said that they left their fear at home, which is why they came through a group that had three former World Cup winners in it.
Navas is now the World Cup’s most coveted keeper with tiny Spanish club Levante unable to keep hold of him. His contract runs out in one year and buy-out clause stands at just $10 million.
In the entire World Cup qualifying campaign, Navas conceded just seven goals – only the United States let in fewer than Costa Rica.
Then having conceded just once in the group matches, against Uruguay, Navas, 27, made the tournament’s best save against Greece to keep out Theofanis Gekas’s penalty.
Atletico Madrid are interested in Navas replacing the excellent Thibaut Courtois, who has gone back to Chelsea after three seasons on loan.
Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton are all interested in Navas and plenty of elite clubs across Europe too.
In last season’s La Liga, he was the second-best goalkeeper based on goals conceded, and the best based on the number of saves made.
Only Courtois conceded fewest goals, but he had the best defense in Spain in front of him. At lowly Levante, Navas had no such protection as was clear on the opening day of the season when conceding seven at Barcelona.
A Cayman resident enjoying Costa Rica’s sensational progress above everyone else is Alfredo Whittaker, who heads CONCACAF’s refereeing department. Whittaker is half Costa Rican and half Caymanian.
He was a professional keeper in Costa Rica and played alongside Navas’s father Freddy and has known Keylor all the youngster’s life.
“Keylor is a fantastic keeper and he has contributed significantly to Costa Rica’s amazing and incredible run,” Whittaker said. “To see your national team in that position is fantastic.”
Whittaker had no doubts Navas would reach the heights because he was so fearless and athletic as a child, he said.
Surprisingly, Whittaker added, Navas was rejected by his local club, Central Pacific, as a teenager because they thought he was not good enough.
Navas persevered and ended up at Deportivo Saprissa, one of Costa Rica’s biggest teams, in the capital San Juan. “The goalkeeping coach there saw his potential and the rest as they say is history,” Whittaker said, adding that before this tournament Navas was considering a move to Porto in Portugal on a modest contract but decided to wait until after the World Cup.
“Porto has tripled its offer since, but I don’t think he will be going there,” Whittaker revealed.
“He needs to go to a Champions League club. He has options all over the place now.” If Navas can produce his heroics again in Salvador against Holland, his market value will rise again.
“After watching how Holland played against Mexico, I think Costa Rica have a real possibility of beating them if they play some smart moves,” Whittaker said.
“It would be like a dream. The motivation is certainly there and they have the fighting spirit. I expect a good result and for us to go on further.”