Ecuador: Riding High on The Wings of Altitude

Ecuador. Not just famous for the 1997 dance tune by Sash of the same name; now their national football team is making waves. Traditionally one of South America’s less prominent nations, as its economy has thrived, so has its football, keeping up with the likes of the emerging Colombia and Chile. Having reached the Brazil 2014 World Cup finals they are shortly due to play warm-up games against Australia, Netherlands, Mexico and England before things get serious against Switzerland, Honduras and France.

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Fútbol was a relative late bloomer in the country, the former Spanish colony finally playing their first official national game in 1938, a 1-1 draw against Bolivia. Organised football however came at the turn of the 20th century and arrived in the luggage of students returning to the country. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but there seems to be a dozen nations where football was brought forth by a pairing of brothers.

Ecuador was no exception; just months after students returned to port city Guayaquil with news of the round-ball game, Roberto Wright and Juan Alfredo Wright returned. They had fallen for the game in England. Thankfully their suitcase containing a leather football made it through customs and onto the streets. Although a semi-organised league appeared in 1908, the capital of Quito knew little of the game; whereas in other South American countries the game spread like wildfire with the port of entry usually the capital.

The first official club match kicked-off in 1900 although it took 25 years before the Federation Ecuatoriana de Fútbol (FEF) was formed. An invitation to the first World Cup in 1930 followed but it was declined, the national team’s first major competition appearance coming in 1939 at the Copa América.

An unremarkable record followed in the competition and they regularly finished fifth, sixth and seventh, finally achieving fourth in 1959. Just three years later they would make their first attempt to qualify for the 1962 World Cup. Despite their failure the decade would be marked by the discovery of Ecuador’s greatest player, Alberto Pedro Spencer Herrera.

Spencer came from Jamaican and British heritage and with his precocious talent made his competitive debut at 15 years-old in 1953 for Everest. In six years he scored more than a goal a game – 101 strikes in 90 appearances – before a loan move to Barcelona SC sparked the attention of Uruguayan club giants Peñarol.

326 goals in 510 games followed form 1960 to 1970 and it was in this decade that he created his greatest controversy. Originally playing for his country of birth he switched allegiance to Uruguay in 1964, taking advantage of some flaky FIFA guidelines that exist until this very day. With decisiveness not in his repertoire he would toy with fan’s hearts and switched back to Ecuador, again to Uruguay and finally back to Ecuador.

He still holds the distinctive honour of being the only player to represent and score for two nations between 1964 and 1967. His club exploits were just as explosive, he is still the leading scorer in Copa Libertadores for Peñarol and took them to seven league titles and three Copa Libertadores crowns. As a final swansong he finished his career in 1972 with 18 goals in 34 games back in Ecuador for Barcelona SC.

Spencer’s career came at a time when the domestic league was in its infancy, having been established in 1957. Barcelona SC as their name screams, were established by a Spanish immigrant in honour of his hometown with even their badge a copy of their world beating Spanish ancestors. They would win five titles in the competitions first couple of decades, sharing the stage mainly with Emelec and El Nacional who won the same number in this period.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s the national team’s performance on the continent remained poor, barely able to progress past the first round of the Copa América except in 1975 and 1979. On the world stage they were no closer to a first finals appearance.

The 90s showed some sparks of success with a 1993 fourth place finish and then a quarter-final appearance at the Copa América. In this same era, club team Barcelona SC had notched up 13 titles up to 1997 with El Nacional closely following with 11 and Emelec with 8.

The national team’s progress reached a crescendo at the turn of the millennium and was rewarded as they qualified for their first World Cup finals in Japan-Korea 2002, finishing second in the South American qualification group behind Argentina but ahead of eventual winners Brazil.

With decades of unremarkable players Agustín Delgado stepped forward to score nine goals in qualifying, earning a move to Southampton in the English Premier League. Despite a significant injury he played in the World Cup and further aggravated the issue on their way to a group stage exit. Subsequently his career in Europe stalled and he returned to his homeland.

Along with Delgado, the spirit and steel of Ecuadorian football is best expressed by former captain and centre-back Iván Hurtado. A veteran of the national team from 1992 to 2010 he amassed 167 caps for his country and managed to switch club teams sixteen times as well as earning the curious nickname “Bam Bam”, the baby character from The Flintstones.

When the World Cup in Germany came around in 2006 the national team defied the odds to reach the Second Round and were only defeated by a David Beckham free-kick. Their subsequent 2007 and 2011 early exits from the Copa América and failure to make the World Cup in 2010 did little to inspire belief until snatching the last automatic qualification spot for Brazil 2014 at the expense of Uruguay, beating them 1-0 in the final game.

The campaign was marked with tragedy when star striker Christian “Chuco” Benítez died suddenly, soon after making a club move to Qatar, midway through their quest. The event seems to have inspired a dogged determination and a cautious tactical strategy that has reaped rewards.

Manchester United’s winger Antonio Valencia is their biggest name, having played for Villarreal, Wigan and even turning down a move to Real Madrid before heading to Old Trafford. His pace and trickery has caused havoc for defences as has his service to ex-Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo. The powerful forward likens himself to the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa of the Rocky movie fame though it is yet to be confirmed he ghost-boxes frozen animal carcasses or spends his downtime training in Siberia.

In recent years the domestic league has enjoyed a similar renaissance and from 2000 to the current day the title has been shared consistently between the capital’s LDU Quito, current champions Emelec, and traditional powerhouse El Nacional. With just one 2012 title for Barcelona SC in the last seventeen years, the emerging Deportivo Quito have pitched in with a trio of trophies between 2008 and 2011 and narrowly missed out in 2013.

As Brazil approaches the national team is not without their critics. Famously their rivals have put their success at home fixtures down to the altitude at which their games are played; they did not win a single away game in qualifying. It is argued that the national team is used to playing at high altitude and can counter the thin air and breathing problems that come with it. Rivals have detested playing at this height, regularly struggling to cope and subsequently losing.

FIFA stepped in in May 2007 to ban games above 2500 metres but then increased this to 3000 metres in June 2007, thereby allowing Ecuador’s venues to be within the limit, the only city outside of this being Bolivia’s La Paz. However some facts from the domestic league contradict the theory; nearly all titles have been shared in history almost equally between clubs from two cities, Quito’s 28 trophies and Guayaquil’s 26, with Quito at an elevated position and the latter at practically sea level.

Overall the future for football looks as bright as their yellow shirts and the nation’s youth is making huge strides, shown by Chelsea’s Josimar Quintero. The winger was born in Ecuador but moved to Barcelona in Spain when he was five years old and was part of the famous La Masia youth setup. Encouragingly, despite playing for Spain’s youth teams, the 17 year-old has pledged his senior career to Ecuador.

At grass-roots the nation will have to look to its domestic clubs to nurture its own talent and guarantee the country moves forward; in an ideal world starlets would be released to Europe’s top leagues later on their way to stardom.

Interestingly in Brazil, Ecuador will be playing their group fixtures at sea level at the iconic refurbished Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro and will look to at least equal their best performance so far in 2006 and prove their recent success is well earned; and not due to the highs experienced by thin air.

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