After many successful season's in European club football, Costa Rica team captain Bryan Ruiz (white jersey) is having an outstanding World Cup at Brazil 2014. (Photo: Mexsport)
SANTOS, Brazil -- Bryan Ruiz is living his dream. The 28-year-old became a national hero on Friday, heading home the game-winning goal against four-time world champion Italy to secure Costa Rica a spot in the knockout stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
His success, though, has been earned and did not always come easy.
In a career that started with Alajuelense, Ruiz – viewed by many as the most promising young talent in generations – was left off of the Ticos’ 2006 World Cup roster. The midfielder’s performances as a 19-year-old at the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup – one goal in four appearances – had many believing that he merited a seat on the plane to Germany.
Four years later, already entrenched in European football with Holland’s FC Twente following a stint with Gent in Beligium, World Cup heartbreak struck Ruiz again. Up 2-1 on the United States in their final match of the Hexagonal, just seconds away from securing qualification, the Ticos surrendered an equalizer in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time on a Jonathan Bornstein header.
The draw cost Costa Rica an automatic qualification spot as it fell below Honduras on goal difference and it was forced into an intercontinental playoff against Uruguay. In the first leg, a Diego Lugano goal at the Estadio Saprissa gave the visiting Uruguayans a 1-0 advantage heading to Montevideo, where the Ticos -- despite a goal from Walter Centeno -- could only manage a draw. Ruiz was once more forced to watch the tournament from home.
Symbolic of his on-the-field demeanor, Ruiz refused to be denied a third time. He wore the captain’s armband with distinction throughout the 2014 World Cup qualification cycle as Costa Rica finished second in the Hexagonal, qualifying for Brazil comfortably with two games to spare.
For Ruiz and the rest of the Costa Rican sporting community, the jubilation of qualification was quickly tempered by the draw. Placed alongside three former World Cup winners in Uruguay, England and Italy, Group D and many viewed Costa Rica as a longshot to get through to the knockout stages.
On Friday, when Ruiz powered his match-winning header off the underside of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s crossbar for a goal, that all changed. The Ticos’ dreams were realized.
Yet for Costa Rica, the fairy tale ride is not over; there is more soccer to be played.
Such is the power of the World Cup.