By Philip O'Connor
RECIFE, Brazil, June 20 (Reuters) - Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto hailed his players after a 1-0 win over former champions Italy took his side through to the World Cup knockout stages for the first time in 24 years.
Captain Bryan Ruiz netted a header just before halftime at the hot and humid Pernambuco arena to put the Ticos on the road to victory, and Italy looked sluggish as they sought to find a way through Pinto's well-drilled defence.
"Today is very special," an elated and emotional Pinto told a news conference. "We knew today we could make history and we have been able to do so," he added, referring to their first appearance in the knockout stage since 1990.
The victory prompted scenes of wild delight among the Costa Rica fans, who could scarcely have guessed before arriving in Brazil that their team would have six points after two games.
"The people of Costa Rica can celebrate," Colombian-born Pinto told a packed media conference. "They have a very close relationship with the national team, and it works very well.
"We have been working very hard for over five years. We have to enjoy the moment," the smiling 61-year-old said.
The win means the Central Americans have made it out of the group stage for the first time since their World Cup debut in Italy, and Pinto could barely conceal his delight.
"In previous years we fought very hard. We been able to improve and I am very proud of that," he told reporters.
"That's what I told my players today, let's change history, but let's respect the past because it is very positive.
"We have changed many things," he told reporters. "In our tactics we have a different system. We press much more, we press at the front and this is working very well."
Pinto said prior to the game that they had a plan to shut down Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo and it worked to perfection.
The midfield general played two dangerous balls in behind the defence in the first half which led to chances, but for the most part he was never allowed to get on the ball and pick out his passes as he did against England.
"We controlled Pirlo very well. We kept him under control and blocked his initiatives," Pinto said. "Italy are very good and a very experienced side, but we tried and we did very well."
Costa Rica next meet another former World Cup winner when they face eliminated England in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday and, having already guaranteed qualification from the group, Pinto is already looking forward to extending his stay in Brazil.
"We want to go further. I have told my team we have to keep calm of course, but we will fight for that. God willing we will stay in it," he said.
"A World Cup is never easy. We feel calm and mature and we might be able to go further and reach a historic level," he said. "We're very happy but we have to be ready for everything." (Editing by Ken Ferris)