Joel Campbell arrived at Costa Rica's training camp in early May dreaming of the World Cup. Literally.
The tournament had invaded his subconscious. With an airy, calm demeanour, Campbell talked about seeing the first match against Uruguay play out in his head 100,000 times. He envisions detailed sequences, ways he'll slip past defenders to score.
"At the moment, I have 80 goals in my mind," Campbell said. "And we'll wait to find out how many I get in the World Cup."
June 14 v Uruguay
June 20 v Italy
June 24 v England
Campbell needs to turn those fantasy goals into reality for the Group D underdogs Costa Rica. In Brazil, La Sele must outplay three former world champions Uruguay, Italy and England. The group makes Campbell's daydreams sound more like a nightmare for his country.
An injury in the final day of the team's training camp thrust Campbell into the lead attacking role in coach Jorge Luis Pinto's line-up. Looking confident and composed, the Ticos' youngest player has embraced the opportunity.
In a group with football luminaries like Luis Suarez, Mario Balotelli and Wayne Rooney, Campbell - a 21-year-old striker with heaps of potential and an unsettled future - has the chance to upstage the world's best. In doing so, he can take Costa Rica into the knockout round for only the second time in the country's history.
"He's a player in a good spot right now,” said midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda. “And we have to take advantage of it."
Campbell has taken great strides this year, seeming relentless at times with Greek squad Olympiakos (where he's on loan from Arsenal) and the men’s national team. After an embarrassing incident eight months ago, Campbell has managed to regain the narrative and shift it back towards his grand potential.
The incident occurred in San José near the end of a heated qualifying match when the US defender Matt Besler brushed up against Campbell's foot. The Costa Rican fell to ground and rolled around as if he was in agonising pain, pausing once to make sure the ref took notice.
Besler received a yellow card that caused him to miss the match with Mexico. Campbell earned a reprimand from FIFA, and was lambasted in international media. Of the moment, he said too big of a deal was made of it. The striker told me he knows the "truth about what happened on the field and, well, it's in the past”.
He's a player in a good spot right now. And we have to take advantage of it
Funny thing is if that dive never took place, the talk would've been about another play between Besler and Campbell that occurred just minutes earlier. After a clear pass from teammate José María Cubero, Campbell entered into a footrace with Besler for the ball. Campbell sped by the American and smoothly steered a low shot past Tim Howard for a breakaway goal that sealed a 3-1 victory. It's those types of theatrics - his astonishing goals - that have made Campbell the face of the team.
His eight goals and 10 assists for Olympiakos this season, allowed his club to take the Greek title with ease. His most spectacular moment came against Manchester United in a Champions League match in March. He embarrassed the English powerhouse by dribbling the ball through the legs of a defender and sending a stunning, long-distance shot into the left corner of the net to clinch the upset. A week later, Campbell lofted another wonder goal in a friendly win against Paraguay in San José.
Next big star
La Sele assistant coach Paulo César Wanchope has often called Campbell the next big star of Costa Rica. Wanchope, arguably the best footballer ever to play for the Ticos, believes Campbell maintains a similar skill set to what he possessed. The pressure on Campbell has mounted. In the final days of the team's training camp X-rays showed forward Álvaro Saborío had fractured his fifth metatarsal, and would miss the World Cup. Saborío, the team's oldest player at 32, is one of the most prolific goal scorers in Costa Rica history. His eight goals in qualifying led La Sele. Campbell and three other players tied for second, with three goals each.
"The experience in Europe has helped Joel a lot," explained La Sele captain Bryan Ruiz. "He's matured, and will have a great World Cup."
Campbell never expected to spend so much time bouncing around Europe after Arsenal signed him in 2011 on a five-year deal. Visa issues prevented Campbell from joining the Gunners and although the issue has been resolved, the Tico has remained out on loan and in limbo with stints for Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos.
Campbell has been pelted with questions about what's next for him. He believes the answers, along with the foreseen goals, will come in Brazil.
"It's impossible to talk of the future," Campbell said. "I could say I'm going some place, but then later I'm not going here, I'm going there. It depends what happens in the World Cup. That's the future."