RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Of all the social media memes that were shared to celebrate Costa Rica’s unexpected World Cup success, perhaps the most endearing was the image of Cinderella in the colors of the Costa Rican flag.
In the cartoon, the fairy godmother was depicted passing her wand over the blue, white and red dress, saying: “ Get ready Cinderella, we’re going to the quarter-finals.”
For the country’s population of 4.8 million, known as Los Ticos, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been a fairytale.
But in the unexpected victories that put Costa Rica among the best eight teams in the world, there was also a sense of validation and vindication for Central America’s darling-in-disguise.
Heavily tipped as the underdog in Group D, Costa Rica not only survived the “group of death” by beating Italy and Uruguay, and drawing with England, they won it.
The Ticos thus avoided Colombia and faced Greece in the last 16, progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history after a penalty shootout.
While the results surprised many a seasoned soccer observer, it seemed Costa Rica’s World Cup campaign was an overdue conquest of one of the few fields it had yet to claim.
“So proud that us Ticos are in the world elite, inside the eight best teams on the planet,” said supporter Steve Dossman Vargas. “We beat not only a twice-world champion in Uruguay but one of these eight best teams in the world.
“If the Fifa rankings were published today, we would be inside that top eight, out of 199 countries. All this thanks to the guys’ hard work, the soul and heart that has been left on the pitch and we’re thirsty for more. Go Costa Rica!”
Off the pitch, the country has long been leading Central America in terms of development; it has a 97 percent literacy rate and far outstrips its neighbors Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala in the UN’s Human Development Index.
It has an established democracy and no standing army. In 2012, Costa Rica was ranked fifth in the world in the Environmental Performance Index produced by Yale and Columbia universities, behind countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg.
Costa Rica is also the happiest place in the world, according to the Happy Planet Index, which measures human wellbeing and environmental impact – and no doubt World Cup success has made those smiles even broader.
But after sitting alongside “First World” countries in terms of development, the tiny country has now arrived among football royalty including the powerhouses of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands.
In a message to the team, Costa Rica fan Eugenia Coto López said: “All have been the architects of this joy that continues to reverberate in every corner of the world because today, Costa Rica is on everyone’s lips.
“You have opened an important door to every citizen in this beautiful country; without doubt, on Saturday, the story will continue, making us mourn, cry, making our hair stand on end. The feat they have accomplished is amazing.”
David Faitelson, a journalist in Mexico, tweeted: “Costa Rica: giant of CONCACAF? Not at all, now it’s ‘Giant of the World Cup’.”
A country of amateur footballers until the 1990s, Costa Rica has become the last surviving nation from the North and Central America and Caribbean region in the competition.
Indeed, many supporters from teams such as Mexico, Honduras and Chile – knocked out on the way to the quarter-finals – have defaulted their support to their Latin American compatriots.
While it now has a number of players like Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell plying their trade abroad, specifically in Europe, many in Costa Rica credit this year’s success to the stability brought to the team by coach Jorge Luis Pinto, a Colombian.
Since 1990, the year the Ticos first competed in a World Cup, there has been an average of more than one manager a year, which has made for slow development.
However, in Pinto, who has been in charge since 2011, Costa Rica has found the consistency on which to build a solid team.
In the final six-team qualifying group for the World Cup, Costa Rica conceded the fewest goals, winning all five home games.
Xiomara Ríos Gorgona, an accountant from Costa Rica, said Pinto was an “extraordinary leader.”“We were born dead, were the comments,” she said. “To the world, we were Cinderella.”
But Costa Rica has found its prince – or rather, 11 of them. So overwhelmed has the public been by the success of the national team, reports from San José suggested a spike in the number of babies being named Joel, Bryan and Keylor after some of the stars, immortalizing this year’s triumphs in a new generation.
And for Víctor Monge Chácon, Costa Rican ambassador to Brazil, the legacy of this year’s World Cup campaign will boost tourism – the country’s largest foreign exchange earner – and the economy even further.
“The name of Costa Rica is known in the whole world now,” Chácon said. “The country has reached a good level in all aspects,” he added, linking the progress in football to overall development.
Marcos Levy, Costa Rica’s vice consul-general in Rio de Janeiro, added: “Costa Rica is among the eight best in the world now through the World Cup. No one is saying it, it’s being proven.”
Levy said there were around 5,000 Costa Rica supporters in Brazil for the World Cup, with many Brazilians also backing the team.
The ambassador confidently predicted a 2-1 win for Costa Rica against the Netherlands. Whatever the result, this Cinderella has certainly been to the ball and will not be going home in a pumpkin.