164239982

By Carlo Campo

The seemingly endless cycle of South American qualifiers is back underway and, believe it or not, it’s finally approaching the final stages. After Tuesday’s fixtures are completed, no team will have more than six fixtures remaining. There should be a clearer picture as to what nations will reach Brazil 2014 and what nations will miss out.

Not surprisingly, Argentina’s lethal offence has the country leading the supergrupo. With 23 goals in 10 matches and the best goal difference on the continent, a win away to Bolivia on Tuesday would give La Albiceleste a total of 26 points, a number many believe is already good enough to qualify them for next year’s World Cup.

And if there’s one team that’s making a lot of noise in the region, it’s Colombia. After a sketchy start that included a draw at home to Venezuela followed up by a 2-1 home loss to Argentina, Los Cafeteros are on a four-game winning streak that has seen them tear apart Uruguay 4-0, snatch an important 3-1 away win against Chile, and humiliate Bolivia 5-0 last Friday. Some believe Colombia’s current crop of players is the best generation of players their national team has ever had.

Against this backdrop, there is a third team whose campaign is also in cruise control and who is quietly sitting in third place in South American qualifying: Ecuador.

Perhaps it’s because the squad’s star strikers Felipe Caicedo and Christian Benitez don’t turn heads the same way Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, or Radamel Falcao do. After all, Caicedo currently plies his trade at Lokomotiv Moscow, a club that sits in the middle of the Russian Premier League table and is far from competing in Europe’s elite competitions. It’s not exactly Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Atletico.

But 11 years since the small Andean nation debuted at the Korea/Japan World Cup and eight years since the team reached the final 16 in Germany, Ecuador are making the most of their home qualifiers to ensure a third World Cup appearance. With a 5-0-0 record in Quito, La Tri are the only South American nation with a 100% home record. And if that isn’t impressive enough, the team has only conceded once in those five matches. Oh, and it should probably be added that the goal they allowed was an own goal in a solid 3-1 victory over Chile. With their excellent form in qualifying, it’s no wonder the country is currently ranked 11th in the FIFA rankings. The ranking system may be a farce, but no team climbs that high without accomplishing something or other.

Tim Vickery mentioned in a recent Monday blog post for the BBC that he believes 25 points will be good enough to secure automatic qualification in the region. If this holds true, Ecuador need only eight points from its remaining seven matches. And with three games still to be played in the altitude of Quito, Ecuador could qualify simply by keeping up its 100% home record and without picking up a single point on the road.

Speaking of “the road”, this is perhaps another reason why people don’t place Ecuador’s current side in the same category as a team like Argentina. Having picked up 15 of their 17 points in Quito, there are obviously some haters who are stuck in FIFA’s unscientific 2007 and continue to attribute the nation’s success to its altitude. Despite the fact that winning at home is very much a theme of South American soccer, a 3-2 away win over Portugal last month, where Cristiano Ronaldo and many others from Portugal’s Euro 2012 squad featured, will hopefully serve as a reminder that the team is capable of far more than home victories.

But perhaps the trickiest obstacle in Ecuador’s quest to prove that they are now amongst the world’s elite is that the current squad sits in the shadow of a generation of players who revolutionized the sport for their country.

Led by a surge of players from the northwestern region of the country in the late 90s, players such as Agustin Tin Delgado, Ulises de la Cruz, Alex Aguinaga, and Edison Mendez took Ecuador to a level that had previously been unknown to the nation. Never had such talent been witnessed by the Ecuadorian public and unsurprisingly, there were suddenly numerous players from the national team playing in Europe. And on a historic day in November 2001, Ecuador qualified for their first World Cup after drawing Uruguay 1-1. Ivan Kaviedes’ goal for La Tri that day is arguably the most famous goal in the country’s history.

Despite being eliminated in the first round, Ecuador performed admirably at their first World Cup in 2002 and earned a historic 1-0 win over Croatia courtesy of a goal from Mendez. The same generation of players followed up their impressive performance with another successful qualifying campaign on the way to Germany 2006 where the team improved on the previous World Cup by defeating Poland 2-0, defeating Costa Rica 3-0, and reaching the final 16 where a classic free kick goal from David Beckham ended their dream run.

It was in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 where the signs of an aging group of players began to show. Quito no longer seemed like the fortress it had been for the past ten years and a number of points were carelessly dropped in the final minutes of crucial games.

After failing to reach the showpiece event, it was clear that younger replacements had to be found for the aging squad. And if the current standings for Brazil 2014 are any indication, Ecuador has found them.

Intimidating striker Felipe Caicedo is proving that he is capable of playing in Europe’s top leagues having scored four goals in the four qualifiers he has played. A dispute with head coach Reinaldo Rueda had kept the 24-year-old out of the national team until last September. Since re-joining the team, Caicedo has been the ideal replacement for a player like Tin Delgado with his ruthless finishing and intimidating presence in the 18-yard box. Christian Benitez is also proving to be a solid striker. With his speed and creativity, the striker who plays for America in Mexico also has the dribbling skills to take the ball down a third of the pitch in one run.

While failing to impress at Manchester United this season, Antonio Valencia is still doing that thing where he tears apart defences on the right flank for Ecuador. The 27-year-old winger had already earned a starting spot in the team before the 2006 World Cup, but his leadership as a captain is shining like never before in the current campaign. And with 23-year-old Jefferson Montero often playing on the left flank, Ecuador are an incredibly dangerous team on the wings.

In defence, Ecuador’s new-look back line consists almost entirely of players from the domestic league. At 24 years of age, centre back Frickson Erazo of Barcelona SC is being linked with a move to Manchester United and right back Juan Carlos Paredes (of the same club) has a Brazilian-ness to his game with his ability to get involved in Ecuador’s offence. And in net, Liga de Quito’s Alexander Dominguez has done a very respectable job of taking over cult hero Jose Cevallos. A move to a larger club will likely come in the next year or two for the 25-year-old keeper.

But even with all changes that have taken place in the past few years, its quick passing game continues to be the identity of Ecuador’s national team. And if the style was working before, it’s working better than ever now.

For anyone who’s interested in seeing a team with the potential to be a dark horse at next year’s World Cup, Tuesday’s match against Paraguay will likely be another opportunity for La Tri to dazzle in front of a packed Estadio Atahualpa.