Belfast Telegraph

Aaron Hughes urged to play on as Northern Ireland hero considers retirement

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes is mulling over his footballing future.
Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes is mulling over his footballing future.
Bryan Ruiz

By Paul Ferguson

Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz hopes his friend and former Fulham team-mate Aaron Hughes doesn't bid farewell to football following Los Ticos' 3-0 win over Northern Ireland in San Jose on Sunday.

Defender Hughes, at 38 years of age, admitted during the tour of Central America that he will go home, rest up and contemplate retirement.

Having spent 20 years in the professional game, Cookstown native Hughes, capped 112 times by his country and slowly closing in on Pat Jennings' record of 119, is unsure whether his body will hold up or he has the motivation for one more season in top-level football.

Hearts, whom he played for last season, are understood to be ready to offer him a new 12-month contract, while Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has told him he wants him to be part of his squad for the Nations League games against Bosnia and Austria, which kick off in September.

Midfielder Ruiz, now with Sporting in Lisbon, spent three years with Hughes at Craven Cottage and believes the former Newcastle United and Aston Villa defender, even in defeat, showed at the Estadio Nacional on Sunday that he is still good enough to continue playing for both club and country.

Ruiz, an unused substitute for Costa Rica against Northern Ireland, said: "I spoke with him (Aaron) and it was nice to see him again. I don't know if he feels physically well to continue but he played very well against us.

"Playing 90 minutes in hot weather, I think it's a good sign for him. I hope he continues playing because he's a great player and he's a great person. We swapped shirts at the end and I'm grateful to him for swapping shirts with me."

Ruiz and his team-mates, just like the Northern Ireland players, left San Jose yesterday morning and flew to the UK. Costa Rica play England at Elland Road on Thursday night as they build up their preparations for the World Cup in Russia.

Costa Rica drew 0-0 with England in Brazil four years ago to leave Roy Hodgson's men bottom of Group D while Los Ticos progressed, coming out ahead of Uruguay and Italy.

Ruiz, though, expects Gareth Southgate's team to be a much tougher proposition this time around.

"I think they are much better than they were four years ago," said Ruiz. "It's going to be a very good game for us. Hopefully we are going to get a good result and good things from that game."

Costa Rica, who reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup four years ago, will be in an extremely tough group in Russia later this month as they must face Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland.

Brazil, with superstar Neymar back from injury, are the favourites to top the group, so Ruiz anticipates Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland will all be playing for second place.

"It's going to be more difficult this time, I think," added 32-year-old Ruiz. "Our group is very similar. We are going to take Brazil out of that similar group because Brazil are very good. The rest of the teams are very good so it's going to be difficult for us, but it's very important to win that first game against Serbia."

Costa Rica striker Joel Campbell will be a big player for Los Ticos during the World Cup. He is still contracted to Arsenal but has not impressed during his time at the Emirates and was shipped out on loan to Real Betis last season.

The 25-year-old was a major thorn in Northern Ireland's side on Sunday, scoring one and creating numerous chances which the defence and keeper Trevor Carson did well to thwart.

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill believes Campbell's performances at international level are indicative of the Costa Rica players, who seem to perform better for their national team rather than their clubs.

O'Neill said: "He's a player that typically looks to be better at national team level than he does at club level.

"He had a very exciting World Cup in 2014. Costa Rica are a team that don't have any huge stars but I think when they get to the tournament (World Cup in Russia) they're capable of causing upsets. They're capable of certainly getting to the last 16.

"I think they're well geared to deal with the tournament. Not all their players have played the whole season. Campbell looks fresh and sharp so he'll be a big player for them. (Cristian) Gamboa's barely played a game this season, looked a good player, Bryan Oviedo was in and out of the team at Sunderland.

"It's like Chile - sometimes these players are better for their national team. Sometimes the system they play in suits them better. They seem to raise their level in the national jersey. I think that will give them a chance to do well in Russia."

Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley wouldn't be surprised if they reached the knock-out stages.

He said: "They controlled the ball, have good movement, have more players playing in Europe than Panama. They're a good side. They can cause teams problems at the World Cup."

Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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