In a soporofic anti-climax, after both players and manager admitted it would be a tough ask getting motivated for what was effectively a dead rubber, Roy Hodgson’s new-look side became the first country to take a point off Costa Rica, of all teams, but one point out of nine is scant consolation, especially when considering the opposition.
Already eliminated after two group games – the first time that has happened since 1958 – the atmosphere in Brazil’s third-largest city was distinctly low-key though the legions of England fans did their best to show some enthusiasm by belting out the national anthem in front of the attending Prince Harry.
On Saturday, this place will be rocking when the host nation confronts Chile in the mother of all south American showdowns. It would have been, to a lesser extent, yesterday had England achieved what they were supposed to before they even got here.
Hodgson had announced his line-up 24 hours beforehand so there were no surprises. Nine changes were made in a complete overhaul with the likes of 18-year-old Luke Shaw getting his first taste of international football at this level. Hodgson had argued that it had nothing to do with the future but he was fooling no-one. Apart from Frank Lampard, captaining the side at 36 in what was surely his last England hurrah, this was very much a side with Euro 2016 in mind.
For Costa Rica, who have lit up the tournament just as they did in 1990, the prize was very different. Supposedly doomed before the start – even the most seasoned connoisseurs described them as no-hopers – even before yesterday El Ticos entered the record books as one of only two countries to have beaten two former world champions at the group stage.
How they would have loved to have added England’s scalp to that and make it three as chants of “Ticos Ticos” cascaded down from the stands at the Estadio Mineira as England fans were berated for refusing to join in the Mexican wave.
England’s unfamiliar defence was given an early scare when Lampard lost the ball on the edge of the box and the highly regarded Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal last season to Olympiakos Pireaus but surely a Premier League star in the making, skinned Shaw.
However unheralded the opposition, this was a learning curve for England’s youngsters, though it was not clear what system they were playing. Daniel Sturridge, of the two survivors from the Italy and Uruguay defeats, almost put England in front on 12 minutes when he flashed a delicious left-foot curler just round Keylor Navas’ post.
Eight of Costa Rica’s starting line-up play their club football outside the central American state but hardly at the most prestigious clubs.
Yet they have a refreshing all-for-one organisation and spirit about them and whether or not they go any further in the competition – their opponents were to be decided late last night – no side has made more friends or generated more of a feelgood factor.
The bigger and braver the bull is, the better the bullfight gets, their wonderfully anecdotal coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, roared beforehand. Whatever the rest of the world thought, he was adamant his team would be anything but a laughing stock. And he is undoubtedly having the last laugh.
Hodgson, by contrast, summed up the mood in his camp when he remarked in the build-up to the game that he had been plunged into “a realm of despair you don’t know is even possible”. He was almost crying into more beer when Celso Borges’ fabulous 25-yard freekick was only just turned round the post by Ben Foster, once the future of English goalkeeping but now very much Joe Hart’s understudy.
Confidence and momentum mean everything and while Costa Rica had loads, England, described as the mother of football by Pinto, showed precious little enterprise apart from Ross Barkley, who seems the obvious long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard.
And as the first half drew to a close, so England seemed to get to grips with the occasion. Barkley’s corner was nodded back by Phil Jones and Sturridge headed over from seven yards. Barkley then showed touch and poise to bring the ball down and beat two players with a neat body swerve but screwed his effort wide.
It woke up the England fans yet still there was no cohesion. England improved after the interval as Raheem Sterling replaced the ineffectual Adam Lallana while Gerrard replaced Jack Wilshere, and Wayne Rooney took the place of James Milner. Cue the final whistle and massive celebrations by the Costa
Ricans while it was all so familiar for England.
Costa Rica: Navas, Gamboa, Duarte, Gonzalez, Miller, Diaz, Ruiz, Borges (Barrantes 78), Tejeda, Brenes (Bolanos 59), Campbell (Urena 65). Subs not used: Pemberton, Acosta, Umana, Myrie, Francis, Granados, Calvo, Cubero, Cambronero).
England: Foster, Jones, Smalling, Cahill, Shaw, Lampard, Wilshere (Gerrard 73), Milner (Rooney 76), Barkley, Lallana (Sterling 62), Sturridge. Subs not used: Hart, Johnson, Jagielka, Welbeck, Henderson, Lambert, Baines, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Forster.