Costa Rica’s Rodney Wallace on missing the 2014 World Cup, why he think this team can emulate that success and what he learned from life in Brazil ahead of their Group E clash.
“We did it in 1990 with Brazil in the group so why not do it again?” That was the view of Costa Rica head coach Oscar Ramirez after the draw. For the third time in five World Cup appearances, Costa Rica will be up against the five-time champions. But for one player in particular, the chance to play against Brazil will bring back special memories.
During the 2016 season, Rodney Wallace played for Sport Recife in Brazil’s top tier. He has since returned to Major League Soccer with New York City but he still believes his time in South America was a hugely important part of his development. “Being in Brazil taught me a lot of things, not only on the field but off the field,” Wallace tells Sky Sports.
“From the football perspective, it taught me a lot about the value of possession. They keep hold of the ball more and they attack more. It is also the little things like how the referee manages the games. Everything is that little bit different. It changes your whole game and for me it was a great place to be. It got me to where I am today.”
For Wallace, the move to New York is a move closer to Maryland which has been home since the age of nine when his family emigrated from Costa Rica. He came through the college system and went on to win the MLS Cup with Portland Timbers. But Brazil was still a step up. “The people demand a lot of you there and it creates a different dynamic,” he adds.
“You feel the pressure week in and week out not only from your team-mates but from the fans. Every single time you are on the field over there it is kind of do or die. That is how it should be, of course. But over there you feel it more intensely. There are four teams who come up and four teams who go down every season. The stakes are just different.”
They will be high in Russia too. Wallace was part of the emotional scenes in San Jose, the city of his birth, when Kendall Waston equalised against Honduras in the fifth minute of stoppage time to secure Costa Rica’s World Cup spot. In fact, he was the first to celebrate with his team-mate. That Wallace is making up for lost time only adds to the elation.
At 29, this will be his first World Cup. He missed out on the fun four years ago when Costa Rica defied expectation to emerge from a group containing England, Italy and Uruguay. Wallace should have been there. He had scored a memorable winner against the United States in the previous autumn. But a serious knee injury robbed him of his big moment.
He was just battling his way back by the time that his team-mates were shocking the world in Brazil. In the week that Costa Rica beat Uruguay and Italy, he was playing against Orlando City’s second string in the US Open Cup. The day before his country reached the quarter-finals, he was making his MLS comeback in a 1-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City. It was cruel.
“You know what, I have put that behind me,” says Wallace. “I don’t think I would be where I am if I was still holding on to something that happened years ago. We would not be having this conversation. I am happy with where I am now. Everything is going to plan this time around, but the hard work never stops. I have a lot of learning still to do.”
Costa Rica kick off their World Cup against Serbia in Samara and there will be those wondering whether they can hope to match the achievements of four years ago. Wallace will not be thinking that way. “We’ve built enough respect for ourselves worldwide to know that it is not just about being there. It is about being able to achieve something,” he says.
Even so, they remain the Group E outsiders. As well as Serbia and Brazil, there is Switzerland too. But Wallace takes comfort in “knowing that this is a team that is capable of getting out of the group” and whatever happens there is the game in Saint Petersburg where he will take to the field in a World Cup against the country that taught him so much.
“Brazil opened my eyes to a lot of different things,” adds Wallace. “It was a great experience for me and something that I will never forget. It was a great chapter of my career and it is really exciting to have Brazil in our group. But you know, it is exciting for me to be able to have the opportunity to go to a World Cup in general.”