Es sólo Costa Rica – but did we all overlook sumptuous Spain as World Cup contenders?

Matt Stead
Spain midfielder Gavi celebrates

It Was Only Costa Rica but considering barely anyone tipped Spain to do much of note at this World Cup, they didn’t half act like favourites.


Within 10 first-half minutes, Jordi Alba completed his own personal hat-trick.

A trademark assist, crossing low for Marco Asensio’s sweeping finish, was followed by an indulgent nutmeg on Carlos Martinez, designed purely to assert dominance. The plato fuerte, as it were, came when the Spanish left-back shimmied and swayed in the Costa Rica penalty area, tempting Oscar Duarte into some clumsy footplay.

It was, as Clive Tyldesley had it on commentary, “a tired, tired challenge”. That such a thing could conceivably come after barely half an hour and not sound daft summed up the nature of this game: the most laid-down of all opening World Cup markers there could possibly be.

Spain were sensational, dominating possession as expected and marrying it with far greater efficiency in front of goal than most foresaw. The pre-match build-up was full of admiring glances for their style but a familiar refrain about a lack of firepower, a scepticism only further encouraged by the deployment of Asensio as a false nine.

Similar was said ahead of Euro 2020, when they put five past Slovakia and Croatia in consecutive games. Some lessons will never be learned.

Dani Olmo and Gavi scored goals of ludicrous technical brilliance, accompanied by a fine Asensio strike, two from Ferran Torres and one each late on for Carlos Soler and Alvaro Morata.

It would be a compliment to Costa Rica to say they were consigned to chasing shadows. That suggests they got with a vague touching distance of Spain; the truth is they cannot have had the ball for more than five seconds at a time.

Some defeats humble or humiliate. Others chasten. The verb for this level of utter inferiority is yet to be coined.

The half-time substitution is always a good indication of something gone awry. Down 3-0 at the break, it was hardly as if even the casual viewer needed confirmation from Luis Fernando Suarez that things had not gone to plan for Costa Rica. The removal of Martinez for Kendall Waston ahead of the second half felt merciful rather than tactical.

It was Waston who said before the tournament that “we want to go to the World Cup with the aim of winning it. Many will say that we are crazy but let them think that then”. The shipping of a further four goals on his watch ever so slightly undermined his argument as Spain scored one goal less than they managed in the entirety of their champion run 12 years ago.

But it did raise the prospect of another Spain reign, something hardly forecast ahead of the tournament. Only three of our 10 experts predicted Luis Enrique’s side to reach the semi-final, two of 15 Guardian columnists backed them to make – and lose in – the final and no BBC pundit had them in the last two.

England and France, the only other teams to truly stretch their legs thus far, made statements with caveats. This was seventh heaven, bracket-worthy brilliance, a display with no discernible weakness.

The front pages of Marca and Mundo Deportivo may be graced with headlines of ‘Es Sólo Costa Rica’ on Thursday morning but this was a performance as complete as any in World Cup history, opponent notwithstanding. The ones to watch – and perhaps avoid – have made themselves known.