The Godfather of Costa Rica’s Success

Antonio Moyano, a Spaniard, first put Los Ticos on the map thirty years ago

Costa Rica might be the most surprising team of the World Cup, its victory over Italy among the most shocking results so far. Antonio Moyano, a Spaniard, saw this coming. Nearly 30 years before Jorge Luis Pinto guided the Ticos to the 1–0 win in Recife, Moyano coached the Ticos to victory over Italy by the same score in Pasadena.

Moyano, who died in 2010, built the foundation for the national team’s success. His project started in the 1970s and a primary part of his strategy was to promote players with Caribbean roots. He followed through by helping Costa Ricans such as Hernan Medford, Paulo Wanchope, and Mauricio Wright move to European clubs and later guided their careers as coaches.

Most of the country’s black players have origins in Limon, on the east coast. Errol Daniels was the first to emerge in the 1960s, setting scoring records that stood until last year. Daniels even had a training stint with the New York Cosmos, but his career ended at age 29 after an injury. Players such as Daniels fared well locally, but it was Moyano who believed they could make it on a bigger stage, and he has since been proven correct.

Junior Diaz, the gangly left back who launched the cross for Bryan Ruiz to score against Italy, is an example of a Costa Rican player who likely would not have received a chance to go overseas a generation ago. (He plays with Mainz in Germany.)

Moyano moved from Spain to coach Panama’s national team in 1970. Two years later he arrived in Costa Rica, and when he saw technical skill of the players, albeit raw, quickly envisioned its soccer potential. Though tiny—Costa Rica’s population was 1.5 million in the early ’70s—the country has excelled in regional competitions, challenging Mexico’s hegemony. But Moyano was thinking bigger than CONCACAF, and he made things happen, taking the Ticos to the 1980 Olympics and putting them briefly on the map four years later with a victory over Italy in the Olympics at the Rose Bowl.

These were building blocks in the foundation of the Ticos’ national team program. Next stop was the World Cup. The Ticos made it to Italia ’90, but Moyano didn’t, as he was fired before the qualification round ended and then forgotten as Bora Milutinovic coached them to wins over Scotland and Sweden and a surprising second-round advancement.

Moyano had another period coaching the national team in the ’90s, but he often clashed with administrators. As a player, Moyano had played for Real Zaragoza in Spain, and he tried to hold everyone in Central America to the same high standards. It probably wasn’t easy.

A few years ago, Moyano drove me to a game in Guapiles, about an hour northeast of the capital San José, and when asked about the problems of Costa Rican football, he replied: “No saben nada de fútbol,” they know nothing about soccer. That was a stock answer for Moyano. He also gave it when I asked him why he had been fired when he appeared to have the Ticos in position to qualify for the 1990 World Cup.

But as the Ticos move into the knockout round of this World Cup, maybe lessons have been learned. Pinto also has kept faith in Moyano’s players, choosing Wanchope as his top assistant.

Medford has already had a shot at coaching the national team and is now with Real España in Honduras. After playing in MLS, Wright went on to coach Brujas to the Costa Rica championship, ahead of traditional powers Alajuelense, Herediano, and Saprissa.

Costa Rica’s population has grown to 4.75 million. It is still a David in a world of footballing Goliaths, but the Ticos have taken down two former World Cup champions in Italy and Uruguay and drew with a third, England. They will now play a European Champion when they meet Greece in the round of 16. Antonio Moyano would be proud.