NIZNHY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Switzerland set aside political controversy and Costa Rica broke their World Cup duck in a pulsating 2-2 draw on Wednesday that saw the Europeans into the next round against Sweden.
Pre-match attention had focused on Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri’s “eagle” celebrations in their last game in honor of their Albanian roots, while Costa Rica had taken flak at home for failing to score at the tournament.
Yet this time, the Swiss kept their focus purely on the game to keep the already-eliminated but still lively Central Americans at bay and ensure passage from Group E.
After withstanding early pressure, the Swiss took a 31st minute lead against the run of play when forward Blerim Dzemaili blasted past Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas from close range following a nod down from Breel Embolo.
Costa Rica had twice hit the woodwork in a frustrating opening 15 minutes of missed chances, but finally scored their first goal in Russia when defender Kendall Waston powered home Joel Campbell’s corner in the 56th minute.
That triggered mass celebrations like they had won the trophy, as players mobbed coach Oscar Ramirez who has been facing stinging personal criticism in Costa Rica.
In a frenetic finale, substitute Josip Drmic restored Switzerland’s lead when he drilled home in the 88th minute, before Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz’s stoppage time penalty struck the bar and went in off goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s back for an own goal and 2-2 draw.
In between those two late strikes, Costa Rica appeared to have won another penalty before it was ruled out for offside by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.
“We’re happy, we made it to the last 16. But we’re still going to speak among us about how we’re starting games,” goalkeeper Sommer said of Switzerland’s timid opening.
“The Swedes will be a big challenge. They have a strong collective – all the players are there for each other. We have to do the same. We have to be ready, unlike today.”
Amid their celebrations, there was a sour note for the Swiss, as both captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and defender Fabian Schar took second yellow cards, meaning they will miss the knockout clash with Sweden on Tuesday in St Petersburg.
Despite their joy at scoring, Costa Rica’s tournament has overall been a disappointment for their legions of red-clad fans and a far cry from their glorious 2014 run to the quarter-finals when they lost on a penalty shootout.
An emotional coach Ramirez said the ‘Ticos’ had played more adventurously in their “farewell match” with the pressure off.
“It is not the same playing a game when you have something to lose as when you have nothing at stake,” he said, lamenting Costa Rica’s exit but praising the locals’ support.
“It was beautiful to see all of them supporting us. I don’t know why but Costa Rica is a team that is quite liked abroad. Maybe it’s the way we are. People like us.”
Switzerland, driven on by the inventive Shaqiri who is having a fantastic World Cup, ended Group E as runners-up to Brazil who beat Serbia 2-0.
But their coach Vladimir Petkovic was not happy at the way they had slacked off against Costa Rica.
“We turned over too much possession and lost too many one-on-one situations,” Petkovic said.
“I don’t think we need to over-analyze what went wrong but it has to be taken very seriously and we need to recognize this is not the way to go forward.”
Additional reporting by Nigel Stevenson, Mark Gleeson and Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Pritha Sarkar