Drawn against the mighty America in the semi-finals of the 2014/15 CONCACAF Champions League, Herediano are seeking to do what no other Costa Rican side has ever done before: overcome Mexican opposition in the knockout rounds of the competition.
Following last month’s first leg, Los Florenses look well placed to do just that, having taken a 3-0 lead in the tie ahead of Wednesday’s return in Mexico City.
One of the architects of that handsome win was their in-form striker Yendrick Ruiz, the Costa Rican league’s top scorer last season. It was Ruiz who struck his side’s second against the Mexicans, the front man rising higher than the Águilas goalkeeper and two defenders to nod home Verny Scott’s pinpoint cross.
That crucial strike was the latest exhibition of Ruiz’s penalty-box prowess, and it came as no surprise to Herediano fans to see the forward in among the goals again, a sight to which they have become accustomed over the last few months.
The brother of Tico international Bryan Ruiz, who starred with the national team on their amazing run to the last eight at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Yendrick is now making a name for himself outside his homeland, firing Herediano’s dreams of making their first ever final in a continental competition.
The younger of the Ruiz siblings has been scoring goals for fun since his childhood days in the town Alajuelita, where he and Bryan were brought up by their grandfather, who made sure they never went without and who also found the time to set up a football team called Los nietos del Abuelo (Grandpa’s Little Ones). It was there that they nurtured their burning passion for the game.
Speaking to FIFA.com on the eve of the return match with America, the 27-year-old Ruiz recalled his youth: “My biological father wasn’t really a father to us. It was my grandfather who was there for us, who fulfilled that role. We are so grateful to him for all the things he did for us and helped us with, and for all he taught us. Football is just one of those things.”
After five years with Los nietos del Abuelo, the Ruiz boys set off in search of a bigger challenge, helped by their grandfather, who ferried them in his taxi to trials with some of the country’s biggest clubs. Twice they tried to convince his beloved Deportivo Saprissa of their abilities and twice they were turned down, on account of their slender physiques.
Bryan and Yendrick enjoyed better luck with Saprissa’s arch rivals Alajuelense, where both would start out on their professional careers.
Reflecting on those early days, Yendrick said: “He (his grandfather) always taught us to be good people and to never give up. I try to express that on the pitch, whether things are going well or not, and I try to show my character and come out on top.”
Stylish, creative and left-footed, Bryan was the first of the two siblings to impress, making his first-team debut in 2003 and then earning a move to Europe three years later. He has remained there ever since, returning only to play for his country, something he has been doing since 2005.
In the meantime, Yendrick had to bide his time. A born finisher with a powerful right-foot, he played his first game for Los Manudos in 2006 and moved four years later to domestic rivals Brujas. He joined Alajuela Junior later that year, and in 2011 he was on his travels again, this time to Puntarenas. The stability he craved finally came in 2012, when he signed for current employers Herediano.
Making his own way
Two years ago he finally got the call from Costa Rica, but after appearing at the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup he failed to make the cut for Brazil 2014, where Bryan played an instrumental role in Los Ticos’ charge to the quarter-finals.
It was shortly after that historic campaign that Yendrick begin to emerge from his brother’s shadow, helping Herediano see off the likes of recent two-time Mexican champions Leon in advancing from the group phase of the Champions League, a triumph that kept Costa Rican football on the crest of a wave.
“I don’t think luck has anything to do with what the national team achieved in Brazil last year or with what Herediano are doing now,” said Yendrick, his side’s leading scorer in the Champions League this year with five goals.
“It’s all down to sacrifice and hard work,” he added. “The World Cup was amazing. Nobody gave us a chance. It’s been the same with Herediano. We were drawn against two-time Mexican champions Leon in the group phase and we knocked them out. We’re starting to write our own history now.”
Herediano went on to beat Olimpia of Honduras 3-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, moving into uncharted territory with a semi-final against regional heavyweights America. “It’s a dream for us,” said their free-scoring striker. “Things went our way in the first leg. We knew we could win, though we didn’t think we’d come away with such a good result.”
As he acknowledged, however, the hardest part is yet to come: “I spoke to Bryan and he gave us the benefit of his experience. He knows what’s in store for us in this game, and he told us not to lose our focus and to keep our shape throughout the whole match so that we can get the result we want. I think Costa Rican football has moved on from the days when there were teams who were impossible for us to beat.”
Eight months on from Bryan’s moment in the spotlight, Yendrick is taking his turn to get himself noticed, with a place at the FIFA Club World Cup now a distinct possibility for the younger of the Ruiz boys.
“We’re going to the Azteca with every intention of making history and we’ve got what it takes to go far,” added Ruiz. “Getting to the Club World Cup would be the best thing that could happen to this team. Our dream is within touching distance and we want to make it a reality.”