The secret of Costa Rica's success

Tiny Costa Rica, the fourth-smallest nation at this year's World Cup, had just beaten footballing superpowers and four-time champions Italy -- Bryan Ruiz's header sending his side into the round of 16 for only the second time in the their history.

As the homes and bars of San Jose, Costa Rica, reverberated with the sound of celebrations, almost 9,000 miles across the Atlantic a small smile of satisfaction made its way across the face of Neil Sillett.

The Englishman's relationship with Costa Rica began 17 years ago in the East Midlands when, as a physio at Derby County, he met a 20-year-old striker by the name of Paulo Wanchope. Living just a few doors away from him, Sillett quickly struck up a friendship with the gangly youngster, who went on to be a hero for the Rams -- his debut goal against Manchester United courtesy of a mazy solo slalom remains one of the Premier League's most memorable -- as well as a successful topflight scorer with West Ham and Manchester City.

The pair remained close and in 2011 Wanchope asked Sillett, by then working as a scout, to join him in an advisory capacity at the club he had just bought in his native Costa Rica -- Club Sport Uruguay. With a focus on blooding young players, they oversaw promotion to the country's Premier League and Wanchope was soon poached by the Costa Rican Football Federation, taking up the position of assistant manager to current boss Jorge Luis Pinto. Once again, Sillett offered up his services and when the World Cup draw was made, Wanchope had a special task in mind for his friend.

"I was out there in Costa Rica with Paulo, looking after things at Club Sport Uruguay," Sillett told ESPN. "I stayed with him for weeks and months on end as we built that club, and it didn't come as a shock when Costa Rica's federation asked him to join the national team setup. Since then, I've been helping him prepare scouting reports on Costa Rica's opposition -- obviously with a particular focus on the World Cup. Paulo is a very focused, confident, intelligent guy, who has a great eye for detail; it would be easy to see him as a potential manager of his country in the future."

When Fabio Cannavaro plucked out Costa Rica's name during last December's group-stage draw in Rio de Janeiro, Italians were not alone in thanking their World Cup-winning captain. Like the Azzurri, Uruguay and England viewed Costa Rica as more of a respite than a rival; discussions of Group D's difficulty were widespread, but the 31st-ranked nation in the world barely registered on anyone's radar.

Pinto and Wanchope immediately recognised that the role of being an underestimated underdog could work in their favour, and as the pair began to plot an unlikely passage through Group D, Sillett was charged with gathering the intelligence that would help make it happen.

"When the draw was made, Paulo asked me to collect some information on England and Italy," Sillett recalled. "I got hold of DVDs of England's qualifying games and collated that for him and then did individual reports on all the squad; we did some tactical stuff together, too. After dissecting the friendlies against Chile and Peru, I certainly felt that Chile exposed things that Costa Rica could, too. I kept telling them they had nothing to be worried about and so it proved. It was the same with Italy, too -- it was clear to see from their last three or four qualifying games that they were beatable.

"The preparation that Paulo and Pinto did before the World Cup was extensive and the players were ready. In the Uruguay game, their belief came through. Uruguay's defence was always the area that could be exposed -- I'd watched them down in Montevideo in qualification and wasn't that impressed. Yes they look great up top with Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan but their defence is their liability. Costa Rica were happy to let them have a lot of the possession, it was 54 percent in the end, and hit them on the break. Uruguay were confident, a little too confident perhaps. They struggled with Joel Campbell and once Costa Rica got the first goal I always felt they'd go on and get another one.

"Then came the Italy game, which was probably the standout result really. The match against England sapped a lot of Italy's energy and it was a good time for Costa Rica to play them. The confidence from the first game rolled on and they had plenty of chances -- everyone was in agreement that they were good value for their win."

Sillett's scouting reports are utterly comprehensive; a glance at them reveals the sheer array of skills and characteristics that are being assessed, from tackling and concentration to first touch and work rate; no stone is left unturned and the level of detail is striking. There have been some good predictions, too -- one report from a 2011 scouting mission to the under-20 World Cup in Colombia refers to current World Cup star James Rodriguez as "the best player at that tournament" and the "closest thing I've seen to Paul Scholes." It is no wonder, then, that Wanchope has remained in close contact.

"During the World Cup, Paulo and I have been on Skype every day and to be honest it's been absolutely no surprise to me at all how well they've done," he added. "I've seen a lot of the lads playing in Europe, as well as the guys who are at home in Costa Rica -- no one has even seemed to mention that they have been missing two of their best players in Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Oviedo through injury.

"People thought Costa Rica would just roll over, but that was not the case. Pinto is a sergeant major type of manager -- he's done some good work with the defensive system and they are drilled really well. Paulo is more the friendly face, the one with a strong bond with the players. He's a popular guy."

Having upset the odds to not only advance to the knockout stages but finish as winners of Group D, Costa Rica now face Greece in their first appearance in the round of 16 since they were beaten by Czechoslovakia on their World Cup debut in 1990. With the group-stage exits of 2002 and 2006 -- the latter of which saw a bottom-place finish after nine goals shipped -- consigned to history, the new generation of Ticos is now ready to make history by reaching the quarterfinals.

"Costa Rica rightly believe they have the talent to beat Greece and there's a lot of confidence in the camp ahead of the game," says Sillett. "Once you get into a rhythm, you are hard to stop. They've seen the last two games of Greece and I don't think Costa Rica will do too much different. Paulo and Pinto want to remain solid at the back as they have been and work from there -- being hard to beat is important, particularly in the knockout rounds.

"The three defenders have been playing well together and the goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, has had a good tournament too. It probably won't be the most entertaining of games in the round of 16 but that won't worry Costa Rica -- they've got a great chance of getting through to a World Cup quarterfinal."