Salvador, Brazil: Skilful, quick, strong, a creator and a goalscorer, Joel Campbell’s all-action displays for Costa Rica have ensured he’s led the line of lesser lights to have shone alongside the World Cup’s leading players in Brazil.
The 22-year-old’s tireless and fearless performances in a lone striker role have epitomised surprise package Costa Rica’s gutsy run that has seen them already beat Uruguay and Italy on the way to a first World Cup quarter-final.
Those displays have also ensured that, while the likes of Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Lionel Messi take centre stage, Campbell, along with youngsters such as Belgium’s Divock Origi and Dutchman Memphis Depay, have grabbed some of the limelight.
“Joel is one of the biggest talents I have ever seen. He can go as far as he wants,” Campbell’s national teammate Celso Borges said, adding to praise from big names including Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho and ex-France striker Thierry Henry.
“He is the real thing. His ability to go one against one is what gives him the chance to go the extra mile,” Borges said ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Despite his 1.78 metres height, he has been a chief nuisance for defences in Brazil and has scored once and created another.
His clever runs wide and back deep into midfield make him hard to mark, while he has shown strength to soak up numerous bruising tackles to win possession further up the pitch.
Campbell’s pace and skill also make him a dangerous direct outlet, while his ability to play as a winger offers versatility.
The youngster has a habit of standing out. As a teenager Campbell was spotted by then Costa Rica manager Ricardo La Volpe playing kick-ups with empty cans on the street.
“Who is Messi? Who is Neymar?” La Volpe said after calling him up to the national side. “Gentlemen of the press — I present to you: Campbell. I discovered him playing with cans.”
After being sent out on loan for three campaigns by English Premier League club Arsenal, he took his chance last season to remind them of his capabilities, scoring a fantastic Champions League goal for Olympiakos against Manchester United.
Born in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, Campbell got his big move to Arsenal in 2011, moving from Deportivo Saprissa for about £1 million (Dh6.3 million), but has yet to play for them, initially due to visa issues.
Now, after loan spells with Lorient in France, Real Betis in Spain and an excellent season with Greek club Olympiakos, he has taken his opportunity on the world stage to hammer home his attributes to Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who has been in Brazil covering the World Cup for television.
It looks to have worked. Congratulatory Arsenal tweets such as “What a display from Joel Campbell” initially showed their interest, before Wenger recently confirmed Campbell will return to the north London club for preseason training.
“These are the best days of my career,” Campbell, who has 10 goals in 37 games for his country, told reporters.
“This is unforgettable. We are part of history. Nobody would have put a dollar on this team qualifying, but there you go. It can change football in Costa Rica.”
Costa Rica’s showing may also help clear up a personal disappointment for Campbell. Before the World Cup he bought 500 player stickers but was unable to find one of himself.
If they qualify, the sticker search ahead of the World Cup in Russia in four years’ time will hopefully be more fruitful.