A Small Giant Rises – Football In Ecuador

Throughout the decades, football in Ecuador was dominated by disappointments, right until the turn of the millennium. Ever since, the small country between Pacific Ocean, Colombia and Peru has qualified for three out of four World Cups and celebrated a sensational Copa Libertadores success by LDU Quito in 2008. The final series against Fluminense that ended in a penalty shootout victory is still considered one of the best ever to be played in history. Take a look behind the story of another South American country with me.

Environmentally and historically, Ecuador is and has always been a country of extremes. On one side, the Pacific coast with the country’s largest city, Guayaquil and its over 2,5 million inhabitants. On the other side, the Andes tower nearly 3000 meters high over the rest of the county, along with the nation’s capital: Quito. It does not surprise that the two metropoles also dominate Ecuador’s football to a tremendous extent.

Football itself was established comparatively late. Two English brothers, who grew up in Lima and got into contact with the sport while studying back in Great Britain, returned to Guayaquil in 1899 and implemented a football department in the previously founded Guaranyi Sport Club. Finally, in January 1900, the first football match was played on Ecuadorian ground. The initiative always emanated from the white business elite, while the majority of Indians could not relate for a long time. It took until the 1920s before football reached Quito (population dominated by Indian heritage) in a notable fashion. Therefore, Guayaquil remained the focal point for many years and served as place for some of the most important early decisions, such as the foundation of an Ecuadorian football association (1925) or joining the FIFA a year later.

That time in history also saw the rise of the most famous Ecuadorian clubs today. Barcelona SC and Emelec, both from Guayaquil, but both as different as clubs can be. While Emelec is the club of the rich, Barcelona is home of the poor, yet they are, with over a hundred thousand members, one of the biggest clubs of the continent. The battle between the two is nervously awaited each year and called “Clásico del Astillero” (Harbour Classic).

Alberto Spencer (photo from pesfan.com)
Alberto Spencer (photo from pesfan.com)

Founded by a Catalan, hence the name, Barcelona SC tried to reach ultimate glory in winning the Copa Libertadores throughout many decades. But neither the Golden Generation in the 1970s around striker legend Alberto Spencer, nor the team in the late 80s or 90s managed more than reaching the final. Spencer himself is easily the best player of his country in history despite only featuring in 11 internationals. In the 1960s he played for Uruguay’s legendary club Peñarol, right in the prime of the team, and won the Copa Libertadores three times. Twice, Peñarol became the best club in the world after. Spencer had a huge role in it and still holds the record for most goals in the Copa Libertadores history (54) and very likely always will. Many South American football experts compare him with Pelé, which should say a lot about this special player.

The national team had less good years, only winning 8 out of 107 internationals between the debut in 1938 and 1976. In most cases dead last when trying to qualify for World Cups and the Copa América statistics usually didn’t read much better. Their fate began to change in the 90s, when Ecuador suddenly started to leave the likes of Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela behind them. A lot of work had been done by Dusan Draskovic, who brought professional training methods from Montenegro to South America. This led to a Copa América semifinal appearance in 1993, a huge success for the “Tri”, as the national team is called. Draskovic’s successors developed the game further in the following time, leading up to the first ever qualification for a World Cup after drawing with Uruguay in November of 2001. While the team was eliminated from the group stages, they showed what they were capable of by beating the 1998 third placed Croatia in Yokohama.

Two more World Cup appearances would follow soon after. In 2006, Ecuador reached the round of 16 and got eliminated by a David Beckham freekick, still the biggest success of the team. After the absence four years later, they returned in the 2014 edition and went out a bit unluckily in the groups.

The constant upwards trend had a lot of positive effects on the nation. Football became a lot more popular due to the national team shining internationally, as well as the domestic league being one of the most stable ones in South America. The sport has given a lot of people hope in a country that has suffered from political & economical instability and natural catastrophes. “Sí, se puede!”, which means as much as “yes, we can!”, is the slogan that found use throughout the country and reflects the atmosphere best. After LDU Quito finally became the first team to win the Libertadores title in 2008 as previously mentioned, one can really talk of the awakening of the small Ecuadorian giant. Where will it lead them? The next step should be getting back to the World Cup in 2018 with the new generation of Enner Valencia, Miller Bolaños and Co.

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