Copa America Spotlight:Costa Rica

Costa Rica have recently been suffered a cruel blow, with the news that goalkeeper Keylor Navas will not be fit to carry his form from Real Madrid's Champions League winning season into his international side's forthcoming assault on the Copa América. For the Ticos, Navas is more than just a goalkeeper: he may not be the only player in his national team to have enjoyed success in Europe, but unlike itinerant captain Bryan Ruiz, or talented hot-shot Joel Campbell, he’s genuinely established himself as one of the planet’s very best players.

He shot to stardom during Costa Rica's thrilling run to the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and earned himself a move to Real Madrid as a result. To emphasise the sheer implausibility of the feat, it's worth noting that you could fit the population of Navas' hometown, San Isidro de El General, into Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabéu almost twice over.

It's not just coach Óscar Ramírez who'll be upset by the news of his absence, but the Costa Rican tourist board too. Though having a superstar goalkeeper may not be as exciting as a prolific goalscorer, that hasn’t stopped Navas having recently been made the face of an official campaign to attract more European tourists to the Central American nation. It describes him as the "happiest goalkeeper in the world." If that was true at the time of writing, it's probably not any more: an Achilles tendon injury in his left foot has brought Navas back down to earth with a bump after Real Madrid's fine finish to the domestic season, and he'll miss the Ticos' second consecutive major tournament as a result.

The man to be drafted into the squad as Navas' replacement is reportedly Saprissa's Danny Carvajal, though if reports are to be believed, Ramírez didn't have much say in the matter: Carvajal was apparently one of only three candidates to have a United States visa.

The importance of a great goalkeeper is, of course, relative. Jonathan Wilson, who has written a book on the art of goalkeeping, refers to a goalkeeper's paradox: "it tends to look good only when something has gone wrong". And perhaps the only time goalkeepers can become match-winning heroes is in a penalty shootout. But while good teams may not worry about a slight deficiency between the sticks (because, by nature of being a good team, their defence shouldn't often go wrong), the structure of Costa Rica's squad offers cause for concern.

Their current squad is a rather top-heavy one, with their attackers significantly more successful than their defenders. Though it’s admittedly not the most scientific of measures, it remains somewhat telling that only one of their starting centre-backs, Espanol’s Óscar Duarte, plys his trade in Europe. The further down the teamsheet you get, the weaker the Ticos look. In the absence of Navas, they look one of the most potentially porous teams in the competition. They managed to partly counter the imbalance in their run to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup courtesy of an über-defensive tactical structure, though they still remained massively reliant on the heroics of Navas in goal. They’re likely to line up with a similarly defensive shape in June, but this time they'll have to do without their star man between the sticks

There’s no doubting the difference that Navas — or, more specifically, his absence — makes. Thanks to a different Achilles injury, Costa Rica were without the goalkeeper at last summer’s Gold Cup, and they were subsequently dumped out without winning a single match. The country’s poor showing contributed to the swift exit of coach Paulo Wanchope, though the former Manchester City man admittedly didn’t help his cause by brawling with a steward a month later.

Suffice to say, the Ticos haven't been helped by an unenviably difficult group stage draw. Though they’ll hope to have too much for Paraguay, the United States and Colombia are both superior sides on paper. But Costa Rica have lately made an impressive habit of doing the unexpected. Though Navas won't be a corporeal presence in the United States this month, he may well be a spiritual one, offering inspiration as the kid that could. It will certainly be a struggle, but don't write them off just yet.

Schedule & Results

Saturday, Jun. 4
Tuesday, Jun. 7
Saturday, Jun. 11