Costa Rica saved the Queen. But there was no saving England. The end of the World Cup dream has been confirmed. England needed Italy to win here in order to cling to the most slender of lifelines, yet the hope was snuffed out by Costa Rica, the tournament’s most romantic surprise. The only consolation was for Her Majesty. Mario Balotelli had demanded a kiss from her if Italy triumphed.
Costa Rica have qualified from the “group of death” that was supposed to eat them alive, and nobody can say that they do not deserve it. After last Saturday’s 3-1 win over Uruguay, they went toe to toe with the four-times world champions and they were the better team.
They shrugged off the harsh decision not to award them a 43rd-minute penalty for a barge by Giorgio Chiellini on Joel Campbell to strike the decisive blow through the captain Bryan Ruiz. The Fulham forward, who spent the second half of last season on loan at PSV Eindhoven, can cherish one of the goals of his life.
Fulham will begin next season in the Championship after their relegation but Ruiz can look ahead to a World Cup knockout tie. The Costa Rican celebrations at full-time were frenzied. They have laughed in the face of those that have belittled them. Their final group tie against England will be a stress-free occasion. Italy have rather more to fight for. Their fixture against Uruguay in Natal next Tuesday is now winner-takes-all. Italy do have the safety net of the draw. But they will have to play a lot better than this. Apart from a gilt-edged Balotelli miss in the first half, they created little. It was Costa Rica’s cool passing, organisation and commitment that defined the occasion.
There has been a Latin American brotherhood of communal support during these finals, and most of the stadium here wanted Costa Rica to win. But there was a corner of Europe that was draped in blue for 90 minutes. It is an indictment of England’s back-to-back Group D failures that it had come to this – praying for a favour from Italy.
Many England fans would gladly have allowed Balotelli to enjoy a bit of petting with Her Majesty in the event of his team doing the business. It was desperation time. Not that Italy or Costa Rica cared about the consequences for Roy Hodgson, the players, Queen or country. This was their opportunity to stride boldly towards the last 16.
There had been temperatures of 29C at the kick-off, with 70% humidity and there was an extended period of feeling out, of sizing up and acclimatising. It was stodgy fare for most of the first half, with the crowd having to wait until the 27th minute for the first shot and the effort from Thiago Motta was hardly worth the wait. After Balotelli had battled with Giancarlo González – a theme of the afternoon – the ball broke for the midfielder but he dragged harmlessly wide.
The overture did, at least, spark a brief purple patch for Italy and it contained the big chance, almost inevitably, for Balotelli. Andrea Pirlo’s ball over-the-top in the 32th minute was whipped with his right foot and Balotelli had timed his run to set up the one-on-one with Keylor Navas. His first touch, though, was heavy and the less said about the second, the better. He got his attempted lob all wrong. Moments later, Balotelli did warm Navas’s palms from distance.
Italy’s first-half performance lacked tempo and was pockmarked by errors. Costa Rica came to sense opportunity, and not only from Christian Bolaños’s dangerous set-piece deliveries. Celso Borges had headed one of them over the crossbar in the eighth minute.
Costa Rica brought the game to life in the closing minutes of the first half, with the trigger being Óscar Duarte’s back header that looped just over. Initially, there was the burning sense of injustice. After Chiellini’s miscontrol had allowed Campbell to burst clear, the Italy defender chased back to bundle him over. The Chilean referee, Enrique Osses, was the only person inside the stadium who did not think it was a penalty.
Jorge Luis Pinto raged on the touchline and when the half-time whistle blew, he thought about striding across the pitch to confront Osses, before being ushered away by his staff. But by then, his team had the lead. From Júnior Díaz’s left-wing cross, Bryan Ruiz got in between Chiellini and Matteo Darmian too easily to head home off the underside of the crossbar. Goal-line technology confirmed that the ball had bounced over the line.
Cesare Prandelli made attacking changes in the second half, bringing on Antonio Cassano to work close to Balotelli, Lorenzo Insigne on the left and Alessio Cerci on the right. Pirlo fizzed in a 52nd-minute free-kick that Navas needed to beat away. But it felt as though the game had become tailored for Costa Rica’s counter-attacking style. Italy laboured. They did not work Navas thereafter.
Pinto’s team sought to carry out their gameplan to the letter. They worked to compress the space between the lines and whenever the ball was played up to Balotelli, one of the three central defenders, normally González, was breathing down his neck, snapping into the challenge. Balotelli felt the frustration levels rise – every Italian did – and he was booked when he caught Díaz with his hand. It was not his day.
During the second half, there were Olés from the crowd for passages of Costa Rican possession. Who could have seen this coming before the tournament? For Pinto and his players, these were the memories that will live forever. Campbell was ever alive to possibilities while there were glorious snapshots when Bolaños skipped away from a full-blooded Daniele De Rossi tackle and Ruiz tricked Insigne.
The crowd loved it. England fans watched through their fingers.