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Costa Rica the Cinderella story

Manager Pinto has his team playing magical football

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Costa Rica's head coach Jorge Luis Pinto (left) savours the upset win over Italy. The victory pushed England out of the World Cup.

HASSAN AMMAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Costa Rica's head coach Jorge Luis Pinto (left) savours the upset win over Italy. The victory pushed England out of the World Cup.

Cinderella has wavy, silver hair, a fiery temper and, a few hours after a shave, the hint of a moustache.

No, we're not talking about the fictional girl, typically illustrated as virtuous and blonde, but rather the archetypal Cinderella -- the subject of neglect, obscurity and mistreatment.

Sports, not surprisingly, has endless such narratives.

And Jorge Luis Pinto is no exception. You see, the 61-year-old Colombian is soccer's Cinderella, and on Friday in northeastern Brazil he took a long, confident step out of the carriage. Everyone looked on in awe.

Pinto, the manager of Costa Rica's national team, first tried his hand at coaching the Ticos a decade ago, only to be sacked after less than a year. He then took the helm at his native Colombia, but after a string of bad results and some vehement public backlash he was cut loose by the South Americans.

Short, lacklustre stints at Cucuta's Deportivo and Quito's El Nacional followed. Neither produced silverware, although a 2010 appointment at a Venezuelan club saw Pinto's fortunes start to change.

By 2011, he had guided San Cristobal's Deportivo Tachira to a seventh title in its history, and he rode the success, however modest, to a return to Costa Rica.

Experienced, well-travelled and not a bit jaded, he set about implementing the tactics and philosophies gleaned from more than two decades in management and influenced by the ultra-pragmatic Jose Mourinho.

Acknowledging the weaknesses in his squad and playing to its strengths -- goalkeeping, tenacity and his own tactical nous -- Pinto qualified Costa Rica for the World Cup and began preparing for group stage matches against Uruguay, Italy and England.

He was not perturbed by the strength of the opposition.

"I know they are very good teams," he remarked in January, "but these kinds of matches inspire us. Playing against these kinds of teams will make us give our best on the pitch."

Then, in a giveaway his rivals should have taken to heart, he added, "We've got a balanced and vigorous defence -- very efficient. Costa Rica's great skill is its defence, but not just our four or five defenders -- the whole team."

Unfortunately, Pinto wasn't finished with the pre-World Cup adversity.

Two months before kickoff he was robbed in San Jose -- the thieves making off with his cellphone, iPad, notebooks, personal documents and cash.

"They robbed very important documents," he told The Tico Times, a Costa Rican weekly. "They stole memories from all my press conferences...a notebook filled with 20 years of phone numbers from all over the world. Now where am I going to get those numbers?"

He advertised a reward for the return of his belongings, but he would have swapped them in a heartbeat for the performance his players delivered against Uruguay in their Group D opener.

After Edinson Cavani had put La Celeste in front from the penalty spot, Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte and Marco Urena replied with a second-half triple-salvo to claim all three points. And when Mourinho -- the philosophical mentor -- chided Costa Rica's tactics, Pinto merely offered that the Ticos would beat Italy as well.

They did, and the victory put England out of the World Cup. Talk about catching attention.

Of course, Pinto is still at the stage of his fairy tale where the spell can be broken. But with the round of 16 still eight days away he has a ball to enjoy before the carriage turns into a pumpkin.

jerradpeters@gmail.com

Twitter @jerradpeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 C10

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