Recife: Costa Rica produced another huge upset to reach the knock-out stages of the World Cup for the second time on Friday with Bryan Ruiz’s goal securing a 1-0 Group D win over Italy that also ensured England were eliminated.
Ruiz headed powerfully home a minute before half-time to leave Costa Rica fans dancing in the sunshine at Recife’s Pernambuco arena.
“We kept up our heads. It was a beautiful match... The people of Costa Rica deserve this. They supported the team and me. This was for them,” said ecstatic coach Jorge Luis Pinto.
Costa Rica top the group with six points, having already beaten Uruguay in their first game, while Italy, three points adrift, now need at least a draw from their final game against Uruguay, also on three points, to go through on goal difference.
“We knew this would be a particularly tough group. We will try to recover all our energy for the Uruguay game,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
“We didn’t get our tactics wrong. They were very, very aggressive and we were trying to find different ways to get into the game but we didn’t manage it.”
In making the last 16 for the first time in 24 years, the Central Americans ensured England became the latest team to make a surprise early exit, leaving at the group stages for the first time since 1958.
The midday sun reduced the early stages to shadow boxing, with Italy hogging the ball but strolling round the pitch at walking pace while Costa Rica were busy but cautious.
Jorge Pinto, the Costa Rica manager, revealed he has spent the last eight years studying Andrea Pirlo, in the attempt to nullify his influence.
No amount of study, however, could stop the magnificent ball played by Pirlo over the top to Mario Balotelli after half an hour of this game.
Until then, things had been cagey, quiet, there had even been a Mexican wave after 20 minutes, never the surest sign that the edge of the seat is being tested. But Balotelli's finishing did not match the quality of the maestro's assist.
His first touch a little heavy, he completely miscued with his attempt to lob the advancing Keylor Navas, the ball squirming off the top of his foot harmlessly.
He connected better a minute later. On the edge of box he fired in a fizzing volley, which Navas did well to smother.
But it as the striker up the other end of the pitch who was catching the eye more frequently. Balotelli might not have known anything about the opposition, but the Italian manager Cesare Prandelli had clearly done his homework.
The instruction had gone out to give Joel Campbell, the man who had destroyed Uruguay, no room. But, even under the claustrophobic attentions of the Italian defence, he was still fizzing on the ball, far more effective than the increasingly isolated Balotelli, who disappeared before the end in a fug of petulance.
Campbell, on the other hand, playing a succession of smart through balls, running at defenders, caused panic every time he received a pass. As the first half was drawing to a close, Costa Rica showed why they can pose such a threat.
In the space of three minutes, Oscar Duarte headed fractionally over, Joel Campbell had a penalty appeal waved away by Chilean referee Enrique Osses and Ruiz headed them in front.
Junior Diaz floated a beautiful cross to the far post and Ruiz arrived to head it in off the underside of the bar and over the line, with the decision to award a goal confirmed on the big screen.
In the second half Italy strived to retain their hold on the game. Prandelli made a series of substitutions early. But with Pirlo restricted, Balotelli sulking and the referee disinclined to give any free-kicks, whatever the scale of the subterfuge, nothing came their way. A failed attempt by Antonio Cassano to convert from a corner the best they could muster.
And as the game wound down, as the crowd marked every Costa Rica pass with a cheery ole, Pinto even had the chance to gift Campbell and Ruiz a deserved ovation by substituting them early.
So it is that England are out. But frankly, watching the Costa Ricans here qualify with panache, it was never likely the Roy Hodgson's men could have beaten them anyhow.
Earlier, England striker Daniel Sturridge tweeted before the game: “Come on Italy!! NecessitÓ il primo dei due favori! Learnt that from the local Italian chef... (hash) badtimes (hash) inGodshands (hash) ForzaAzzurri.”
But, the Costa Ricans had other plans.
Costa Rica: Keylor Navas; Cristian Gamboa, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Michael Umana, Christian Bolanos, Oscar Duarte, Yeltsin Tejeda (Jose Miguel Cubero 68), Junior Diaz; Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz (Randall Brenes 81); Joel Campbell (Marco Urena 74).
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate, Matteo Darmian, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Thiago Motta (Antonio Cassano 46), Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Candreva (Lorenzo Insigne 57), Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio (Alessio Cerci 69); Mario Balotelli
Man of the Match: Bryan Ruiz
Referee: Enrique Osses (Chile) (Agencies)