The 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy was a tournament remembered more for tactical and defensive discipline than attacking flair. Yet, there was one side that managed to add some much-needed color to proceedings. Given little chance by the experts of making an impression on their first appearance in the competition, unfancied Costa Rica surprised everyone by advancing to the round of 16.
With Ronald Gonzalez, Juan Cayasso, and Hernan Medford bringing their skills to bear, Costa Rica was not short on talent. However, the fan’s favorite, Luis Gabelo Conejo, overshadowing them all was the side’s flamboyant mustachioed goalkeeper. He produced a string of excellent performances between the posts during Costa Rica’s historic run to the latter stages.
Following his exploits at Italy in 1990, the shot-stopper signed for Spanish second division side Albacete, helping them get promoted to La Liga and consolidate their place there. It is now more than 30 years since Gabel Conejo bowed out at the top after a highly successful career, prompting The History Of Soccer team to go in search of the man himself and discover what he has been up to in the meantime.
Gabel Conejo Glory Days
The mere mention of the Italian adventure inspires a dreamy look on the former goalkeeper’s face. “We were rank outsiders going into the tournament, and we’d never played in a major competition before,” Gabel Conejo says, explaining the secret behind their unexpected success. “We were drawn against Brazil, Scotland, and Sweden, teams with a much better pedigree than us. But our coach, Bora Milutinovic, was European and very experienced with it, and he had a much better idea of how things might turn out. He was also a brilliant motivator, and he told us that you only get one chance to play in a World Cup. So he made sure we were up for it.”
Costa Rica proved to be the tournament’s sensation, defeating their European opponents to qualify behind the Brazilians. And as Conejo recalls, fans and reporters alike were stunned by their performances.
“The press was amazed,” Gabel Conejo says. “They couldn’t believe what was happening with the Costa Rica national team. Everybody thought we were weak and disorganized, but we were hungry for success. Getting through to the second round was crazy, and it was all very satisfying for me. I was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and that was a real honor for someone from a small country that didn’t have any professional players back then.”
Gabel Conejo’s fairy tale ended on a slightly disappointing note when an injury forced him to sit out the round of 16 knock-out match with Czechoslovakia, who put an end to El Tricolor’s spirited run. “It’s always been a source of regret for me,” Gabel Conejo laments. “It’s as if you’ve been studying your whole life and you can’t go to the graduation ball with your classmates. Czechoslovakia played a lot of high balls into the box, which was one of my strong points. But, on the other hand, it was frustrating because that’s how they beat us, just by pumping crosses in.”
Following Costa Rica’s elimination, Gabel Conejo moved to Albacete, where he enjoyed a successful stay, albeit after a problematic start. “An agent tricked me. He told me they were a first division side when they were a team from the third who had just gotten promoted to the second. I had offers from Torino, Espanyol, Las Palmas, Valladolid and Logrones but I ended up there. Fortunately, we had a great season and got promoted, and I then had two unforgettable seasons in the top flight.”
Guiding Young Goalkeepers
Since putting on his gloves for the last time, Gabel Conejo has been busy passing on his know-how to budding young keepers back home. “I’ve been working with the Costa Rican FA since 2007, and it’s my job to young coach keepers and keep an eye on the lads between the ages of 15 and 18.”
The former national custodian enjoys his work so much that he has even turned down several offers to coach club sides. “Yes, that’s right. I love being a goalkeeper, and though I’ve done the courses and been an assistant coach at every level with the national teams, it’s something I’ve done only as a supporting role. So I can’t say I’m genuinely interested in it.”
As he explains, his work with the Tico youth teams has led to the emergence of some talented keepers. “I was goalkeeping coach with the squad’s senior squad, but I had to cover the youth teams simultaneously. So, with the help of two assistants, I set up a structure, and thanks to that, we’ve produced the two goalkeepers who went on to play for the national side, Keylor Navas and Daniel Cambronero.”
What if a return to Spain, however? Gabel Conejo’s eyes light up at the prospect. “I’ve got an offer to work there, and it would be fascinating to go to Europe and do all the things I’ve been doing here in Costa Rica. I love the country too, and I follow Albacete whenever I can. It’s a big dream of mine.”
Interesting Facts About Gabelo Conejo
- Luis Gabelo Conejo Jiménez was born on 1 January 1960
- A professional debut was made by Gabel Conejo on 27 November 1981 against Herediano for the Costa Rican team Ramonense FC.
- In 1997, he played his last league game.
- Gabel Conejo made his Costa Rican debut in a 1987 friendly match against South Korea and earned 29 caps.
- He was selected in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Team of the tournament with the likes of Franco Baresi, Andreas Brehme, Paul Gascoigne, Sergio Goycochea, Jürgen Klinsmann, Paolo Maldini, Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthäus, Roger Milla, Salvatore Schillaci and Dragan Stojković.
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