Arch-rivals Mexico and USA will be favourites when the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on Sunday 5th June. El Tri and the Yanks have won eight of the ten previous competitions, a biennial cup of nations for North, Central America and the Caribbean zone. Mexico are defending champions, having humiliated the host USA two years ago with a 5-0 hammering in the final in New Jersey. Back then, however, both the Mexicans and the USA took second-string sides to the Gold Cup and, as a result, the tournament was not the spectacle it might have been. This time out, spread across 13 venues in the United States, there will be no depleted squads, no excuses and no half measures as the 12 participating nations vie for a single place at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The 3-week tournament will host most of Europe’s football stars and I want to have a look at the key men who a greater chance of setting the tournament alight and making it a spectacle. Group A will see teams like Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Cuba lock horns against each other for the title.
The Costa Ricans will represent Mexico’s sternest test in what looks a fairly simple group, with the Ticos coached by no less a familiar face to Mexican football fans than their long-time manager Ricardo La Volpe. They also boast the creative verve of Netherlands-based Bryan Ruiz, who is being called the best player in CONCACAF by many pundits.
Let’s have a look at the stars who can help Costa Rica win their first CONCACAF title since 1989.The Ticos have won the tournament on 3 occasions (1963, 1969, 1989),but that was before the name was changed to the Gold Cup in 1991.Their best performance in recent years was in 2002 when they placed second losing to eventual winners, the USA.11 of the 23 men who will be representing the Ticos play their football in Costa Rica. This is Ricardo La Volpe’s 23 man squad:
Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas (Albacete), Donny Grant ( San Carlos), Leonel Moreira (Herediano)
Defenders: Francisco Calvo (San Jacinto College) ,Jhonny Acosta (Alajuelense), José Salvatierra (Alajuelense),Mora (Deportivo Saprissa ,Bryan Oviedo (Nordsjælland ), Júnior Díaz ( Club Brugge ), Óscar Duarte (Deportivo Saprissa), Dennis Marshall ( Aalborg)
Midfielders: Celso Borges (Fredrikstad), David Guzmán ( Deportivo Saprissa) , Diego Madrigal ( Cerro Porteño), José Miguel Cubero (Herediano), Allen Guevara (Alajuelense),Christian Bolaños (Copenhagen)
Strikers: Marco Ureña (Kuban Krasnodar), Josué Martínez ( Deportivo Saprissa),Randall Brenes (Cartaginés),Álvaro Saborío ( Real Salt Lake) ,Bryan Ruiz (Twente), Joel Campbell (Deportivo Saprissa)
Saborio, Bolanos and Ruiz are the men who will be seeking to end Mexico and USA’s dominance in the region.
Real Salt Lake striker Álvaro Alberto Saborío Chacón , better known as “Pipe” in his country, is Costa Rica’s most experienced player in the side having amassed 64 caps and scoring 22 goals. He has a long way to go if he wants to break Rolando Fonseca’s record of 47 goals Saborío was the leading goal-scorer of the 2003–2004 Costa Rican season, finishing the year with 25 goals. He was destined for greatness and people even saw him as the next Paolo Wanchope, a dream which never became reality.
With Saprissa, he has was part of the team that played the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup, where Saprissa finished third behind São Paulo and Liverpool. At the tournament, he scored two goals and ended up tied with three other players for top scoring honours. He took part in the 2006 FIFA World Cup but was mostly a substitute .He moved to Swiss Super League outfit FC Sion after playing for Costa Rica at the 2006 World Cup. He represented the U-23 team at the 2004 Olympics, scoring the Qualifying goal that took them there, and subsequently starting three of four games for the team, scoring a goal against Portugal.
Saborío made a huge impact in his first season in the MLS last season: Real Salt Lake boasted the highest-scoring offense in the MLS in 2010 (45 goals); Saborío led the way with a team-high 12 tallies. A player who earned the MLS Newcomer of the Year award last season starred for the club in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, scoring eight goals as Real Salt Lake advanced to the championship round. After a successful first season at the club, Saborío was made Salt Lake’s first ever Designated Player, signing a four-year contract with the club on December 1, 2010.
F.C. Copenhagen winger Christian Bolaños Navarro is one of Costa Rica’s key players. He’s been one of the Danish side’s most consistent players representing them in every UEFA Champions League game they played last season. Bolanos missed the last edition of the Gold Cup in 2009 and he will try to make amends for the loss this time by giving his all for the team. His wealth of experience and his pace will be a plus for Costa Rica.
He also participated in the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup with his former team, Saprissa,the best team in Costa Rica. He was awarded by FIFA as the third best player of the tournament. With the Costa Rican national team, he played in the 2001 FIFA U-17 World Championship held in Trinidad and Tobago and was a member of the team that went to the 2006 FIFA World Cup that was held in Germany. He played a key role in Costa Rica’s qualification attempts for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Costa Rica went on to the play-offs, unfortunately for Bolaños, Costa Rica’s qualification hopes were cut short, when they lost the two-legged play-off to Uruguay. He is one of the most capped players in the side with 35 caps and 3 goals.
Bryan Ruiz González, commonly known as Bryan Ruiz is Paolo Wanchope’s true heir. He is an attacking all-rounder, and can almost play in any position up front or even as an attacking midfielder. He is also known for his ball control, heading, and passing. He has become the spearhead of a Costa Rica side that is now undergoing a transitional phase. Los Ticos missed out on a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa after successive appearances at Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, a tournament that Ruiz missed out on. In his native Costa Rica he is affectionately known as “La Comadreja” or “The Weasel” and in his early years he was also called “La Escoba” or “The broom” because he was very skinny and long-haired.
Last season, he helped his club to the Dutch league championship in 2010, despite going through a divorce and the first major injury lay-off of his career. And though Twente relinquished their crown to Ajax on the final day of the recently concluded season, Ruiz is not about to let that or any personal setbacks upset his equilibrium. Injuries and personal problems saw him score only nine goals, well down on the 24 he collected in top-scoring for Twente in their title-winning season.
Ruiz has come a long way since leaving Costa Rica in 2006 to sign a contract with Belgian side Gent, a deal that initially took him by surprise: Spending three years in the Jupiler Pro League, he then made the switch to Twente, winning the Eredivisie title in his first season. Conscious of the need to be a leader who can talk to the youngsters and help them, the maturing Ruiz is anxious to take Los Ticos on to bigger and better things, starting with the Gold Cup next week. He has already been selected several times for the national team. He has been important for the U-20 national teams. He played in the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the qualifications of the World Cup 2006. Nevertheless, at the World Cup itself, he wasn’t part of the national team of Costa Rica. Ruiz has scored 9 goals in 38 appearances for his country and he will be aiming to make it double figures when the tournament starts this weekend. With another campaign now under his belt, the Tico striker is entitled to be content with his progress. In the qualification of the World Cup 2010 Ruiz was a member of the starting team and he scored six goals, which made him together with Saborío topscorer. Costa Rica’s CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign kicks off on Sunday, with Costa Rica taking on Cuba in the tournament opener.