At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the Costa Rican national team captured the imagination of many in the global audience.  Before the tournament had even begun, no-one gave Los Ticos a chance – even their recently elected president, Luis Guillermo Solis, said, in effect, that they were happy just to be there.  Yet not only did Costa Rica progress from the first round but they topped a difficult group, defeating luminaries and past winners Uruguay and Italy (plus drawing with England).  In spontaneous celebration, Solis ran from his presidential palace to a main square in the capital San José, to join a large crowd in cheering the triumph over the Italians that elevated Los Ticos out of the group.  Some may see this as a cynical political acquisition of sporting prowess although Solis gave the impression of another delirious fan – he probably should be afforded the benefit of the doubt.  The fairytale continued with a victory over Greece and Los Ticos were a penalty shoot-out away from a semi-final berth prior to falling before some inspired Dutch goalkeeping.  The quarter-finals, nevertheless, represented the furthest Costa Rica had ever been at the football World Cup.

Though possessing few stars, the squad had a tremendous team ethic and a tactically astute coach in Jorge Luis Pinto.  There was also a significant geopolitical aspect that helped the national development of the team that went unremarked among press and TV pundits.  In 2007, Costa Rica broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan, switching recognition of the ‘legitimate’ representative of China from the island to the mainland.  Though a mere 58 years after Mao Tse-Tung had proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, Costa Rica was the first (and to date only) Central American nation to do so.  As a sign of its gratitude, Beijing constructed a new $110m, 35,000-capacity state-of-the-art football stadium in San José.  More than 500 Chinese engineers and labourers were involved in the project and the stadium was inaugurated in 2011 with a friendly match between the Costa Rican and Chinese national teams.  Appropriately, it finished with an even division of the spoils, the score being a 2-2 draw.

Now, a fine stadium is not the only requirement for a national football squad to prosper as China itself (and indeed England) can attest.  Yet the existence of the Estadio Nacional gave a foundation for Costa Rica to punch above its weight in qualification and 2014 was the first World Cup where this qualification led.  In the final round of regional qualifiers, Costa Rica won all of the games staged at their home, including the notable scalps of the USA and Mexico.   Winning is a natural lubricant to greasing the wheels of team unity and it fostered the confidence to take on the big boys of international football and subjugate them.

Though the Costa Rican government admitted the diplomatic switch from Taipei to Beijing was based on economic exigency, any fears that it presaged a Chinese neo-colonial grab on resources (as alleged in parts of Africa) in exchange for infrastructural development were misplaced.  Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group of course reaped a lucrative contract but the costs were fully assumed by the Chinese government.   Costa Rica does have raw materials to exploit but the combined exports of its three main cash crops – bananas, pineapples and coffee – are exceeded in foreign exchange earnings by tourism.  The Central American state is also becoming a hub for finished goods such as computer microchips – Intel’s microprocessor facility is responsible for 20 percent of Costa Rican exports and 5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Moreover, nudged by the rise in ecotourism, in the same year it swapped ambassadors with Beijing, the government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021.  This is not an idle ambition – in 2009, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica as the greenest country in the world, the same organisation that accorded it the status of happiest in 2009 and 2012.

This had not always been the case.  Prior to 1948, interspersed with democratic rule, the polity had a propensity for military government or civilian dictatorship, not to mention various acts of political violence, electoral fraud and unconstitutional decrees.  Following a brief civil war, in 1949 Costa Rica became one of the few countries to abolish its military, saving it from the strife that periodically consumed its neighbours.  Such political stability, in conjunction with relatively high education levels and being in a free trade zone encompassing the USA and the rest of Central America, has resulted in one of the highest amounts of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) per capita in Latin America boosting the country, allowing manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceuticals and software development to surge ahead.  So the achievements of the Costa Rican football team mirrors those of the state – making a name for itself around the globe.