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Joel Campbell (Arsenal’s Prodigal Son) and Costa Rica, The Darlings of the 2014 World Cup

Costa Rica vs Trinidad 2017

Perhaps no team in the 2014 World Cup has been disrespected as much as Costa Rica. They were grouped with a terrific trio of former world champions, Uruguay, Italy, and England, and yet they weren’t playing in the “Group of Death.” That moniker has been placed on Group G, made up of Germany, Portugal, the United States, and Ghana, since all four of those teams are considered competitive enough to conceivably advance. In other words, Group D couldn’t be a “Group of Death” because Costa Rica were too weak and would be run over in the tournament; at best they could squeak out a draw, and perhaps play spoiler in preventing another team from advancing.

As it turns out, Costa Rica have their own plans. Down 1-0 to Uruguay after conceding a first half penalty, Los Ticos came out in the second half firing on all cylinders. Solid combination play on the right flank led to a free cross from Cristian Gamboa, and when it went over midfielder Celso Borges’s head, Joel Campbell was waiting to collect the ball and fire it into the back of the net. Only a few minutes later, Costa Rica added another, on a beautiful diving header from Óscar Duarte.

As if the tie game wasn’t alarming enough, only once Costa Rica pulled ahead, did star Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez jump off the bench and begin furiously warming up. Uruguay, predicting a cupcake of a match, didn’t start him, trying to save him for a more important game against England or Italy. Uruguay still had half an hour to try to get a result, and pushed up the pitch for an equalizer. After more combination play on the right flank, Joel Campbell played a perfectly weighted ball through the left side of the Uruguayan defense, as Marco Ureña first-timed a slow roller past the keeper and into the bottom corner, sealing the game at 3-1.

This is just as much a story about Joel Campbell as it is about Costa Rica. Perhaps, in about a decade, we’ll all look back to this game as Campbell’s coming out party, merely a precursor to an illustrious career in the Premier League and beyond. It’s also quite possible that Campbell’s career has peaked with a goal and an assist on the world’s biggest stage. Ask anyone who watched the game, however, and they’ll likely hedge their bets with the former proposition.

Signed by Arsenal as a 19-year old, Campbell was hyped as a future all-world striker. In fact, the first time I personally heard of the youngster was when a dear friend and die-hard Arsenal fan (God bless his soul) showed me a highlight video that claimed Campbell was the next Thierry Henry. Campbell has just finished his third year under contract for the Gunners, but has yet to dress for them, as he’s been thrice loaned out to teams in lesser divisions in order to gain more playing time.

With increased exposure also came doubters and naysayers, some ready to write him off as a disappointment before he even turned 22. Campbell turned heads this February against Manchester United in the Champions League, when he megged Michael Carrick and proceeded to beat David De Gea from almost 30 yards out. After a solid season with Olympiacos, many wondered whether Arsene Wenger would call upon Campbell to play for Arsenal’s first team next year, to help fill the Gunners’ ever-present need at center forward. Even so, Campbell wasn’t even the most hyped Costa Rican goal-scorer headed into this World Cup.

That honor would go to 32-year old Real Salt Lake striker Álvaro Saborío, the all-time leading scorer for the Utah-based club. Saborío would have started up top for Los Ticos, and possibly knocked Campbell out of the starting lineup, except for a foot fracture that occurred in training before the tournament. A few weeks ago, Grantland ran an article lamenting Saborío’s absence, citing Costa Rica’s diminished chances to pull off an upset without their best goal-scoring threat. The article itself was written with best intentions, hoping only to shed light on a criminally overlooked injury. The bottom line still remains: why worry about an injury to an MLS veteran when you have THE NEXT THIERRY HENRY?!?!?

I may be getting ahead of myself here. If you got too caught up in the last few paragraphs, this is the part where I remind you that Joel Campbell is still a 21-year old kid. He just played in his first World Cup game. How much can you really know? Costa Rica still has two games left to play against Italy and England, and will likely need two more points (at the very least) if they hope to advance. Quite a daunting task against two of the world’s best.

This is also the part where I remind you about the good stuff. Joel Campbell is still just a 21-year old kid! Costa Rica are leading Group D! Did anyone seriously think they would ever see Costa Rica at the top of that table, besides a listing in alphabetical order? Costa Rica are playing with house money at this point; they’ve made their splash at the biggest of all stages, and anything else is just gravy. As difficult as it will be to advance, don’t count them out. Costa Rica came to Brazil to chew bubblegum and shock the world, and they are all out of bubblegum.