Costa Rica was supposed to have gone home a long time ago.
Before Brazil, it had qualified for only three World Cups, making it out of the group stage once. It was no better than the third-best qualifier from its own region.
But Saturday the little Central American nation won a ton of respect — and almost came away with the berth in the World Cup semifinals — by playing the Netherlands to a scoreless draw over 120 minutes, only to lose in penalty kicks, 4-3, in Salvador, Brazil.
Backup keeper Tim Krul, subbed on in the final moments of extra time for the shootout, stopped Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana, Costa Rica's second and fifth shooters, to seal the victory. The Netherlands made all four of its penalty tries, spoiling a brilliant night by Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas to advance to Wednesday's semifinals against Lionel Messi and Argentina.
"We're hurt, but we're happy," Costa Rican Coach Jorge Luis Pinto said. "When we came here many people didn't believe in us, but during this World Cup we've done many beautiful things. Even though we have to leave the tournament we haven't been beaten, even by the superpowers we came up against.
"We're making great progress. We have left a positive and dignified impression of Costa Rican football. I'm proud of the players and so is the country."
None are more worthy of that pride than Navas, who came within two saves of tying Tim Howard's 4-day-old World Cup record by turning away 14 Dutch shots.
This game shouldn't have been that close.
The Dutch, three-time World Cup runners-up, came into the quarterfinals leading this World Cup in scoring with 12 goals.
Costa Rica had five, the fewest of any team to advance this far.
Yet Costa Rica won a group that featured three former World Cup champions in England, Italy and Uruguay.
And Saturday, bidding to become the first CONCACAF team to reach the World Cup semifinals since 1930, the Central Americans certainly didn't play like underdogs, adopting a defensive strategy designed to frustrate the Netherlands and force it into making mistakes.
The first part worked, with the Dutch players beginning to bicker among themselves as the scoreless tie wore on. The mistakes didn't come, though, with the Costa Ricans going late into the second overtime before putting their first shot on goal.
The Dutch dominated statistically, taking more than three times as many shots and controlling the ball nearly two-thirds of the game. But they couldn't convert that dominance into a goal.
"I don't know how … many times we hit the woodwork and how many chances we had — in the end it's all about scoring," Netherlands Coach Louis van Gaal said.
As for the change in keepers just before the shootout, Van Gaal said he liked Krul instead of starter Jasper Cillessen because he's bigger.
"We felt Krul was the better choice here — and he proved that," he said. "He guessed the correct way for every penalty."
Navas wasn't so lucky. After stopping the Netherlands time and again during the game, he didn't make a save during the shootout.
"This World Cup has been a great experience and we're leaving with our heads held high," Navas said. "Nobody likes to lose and it's hard. We didn't lose any game — a penalty shootout isn't a defeat."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times