First game v Qatar @16:00 GMT, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
Words by Ili Hyseni
These set of stamps celebrate Ecuador’s iconic home stadium, the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa in Quito. Built in 1951 and named after the last emperor of the Incan Empire, Atahualpa lies at 2700m above sea level. While it’s not as big as some of the cauldron like venues seen across South America, seating just over 35,000 tightly packed fans, Ecuador have over the years used the intense atmosphere and high altitude to give them an advantage over visiting teams.
Atahualpa is a fortress first and a stadium second. Widely considered to be the spiritual home of Ecuadorian football, it has witnessed some truly memorable nights. Qualifying for Germany ’06 produced two of those nights that are still talked about by fans today. Round 11 of CONMEBOL qualifying in 2004 saw Brazil visit Ecuador at Atahualpa in front of an over-capacity crowd. Seleção had not come to Quito for a holiday, the starting line-up featured icons like Dida, Cafu, Kaka and Ronaldinho. Ecuador’s lineup on the other hand was characteristically workmanlike, stacked full of players from the domestic league. In many ways the game went as you would have expected it to. Brazil had most of the chances, dominating play and hitting the cross bar on more than one occasion. La Tricolor kept things tight, riding on a wave of adrenaline and driven on by the raucous atmosphere. Following 77 minutes of suffering at the hands of R9 and Ronaldinho, midfielder Edson Méndez struck a loose ball first time from just outside the box, catching Dida off guard and finding its way into the bottom left corner. For Brazil it was only the second time they had lost to Ecuador, having previously lost 1-0 in 2001.
The win in 2004, while a shock to many, went on to shape what would be somewhat of a golden age for Ecuadorian football. Ecuador went through the whole of qualifying undefeated at home, picking up more memorable wins along the way. There was the 2-1 win over Colombia, a 2-0 against Chile, 5-2 against Paraguay and of course 2-0 against Argentina. Ecuador finished qualifying having secured 3rd place as well as a place at their second World Cup in a row, an amazing achievement considering the team had only qualified for its first World Cup in 2002.
While the team now plays most of its home games at the the Estadio Monumental in Guayaquil; Atahualpa, which is due for renovation, will always occupy a special place in Ecuadorian football folklore.
The aforementioned golden age reached its peak following the 2006 World Cup, a tournament which saw the team go on a run to the last 16- something that was deemed unthinkable only a few years before. Following the team’s heroics in Germany, fans expected to see more of the same in the upcoming Copa America. With Ecuador one of only two South American teams not to have won the tournament, the team was desperate to get rid of the tag. Unfortunately for the fans, the summer of ’06 proved to be a false dawn with the team not making it out of the Copa America group stages in 2007; a trend that would continue until 2015. Tournament misery continued for Ecuador into the next decade. Apart from featuring at Brazil in 2014, La Tricolor experienced miserable runs in qualifying for the 2010 and 2018 world cups, failing to make either of the finals.
Qualifying for Qatar 2022 has put the misery of 2018 to rest. Ecuador’s run to the finals has got fans discussing whether an improvement on Germany ’06 could be achieved in Qatar. While no longer playing their home games at Atahualpa, the side continue to perform strongly at home; having beaten Uruguay 4-2, Colombia 6-1 as well as drawing 1-1 against both Argentina and Brazil in CONMEBOL qualifying. Strong home form as well as the ability to keep things tight when playing away meant they finished the group in 4th, only 2 points behind Uruguay.
Ecuador are the sort of team that fans seem to take for granted. They’re stereotyped as a boring side that favours a long ball approach in stark contrast to the beutiful football played by their South American neighbours. While the’ve certainly lived up to that reputation at times, this year’s squad is perhaps the most exciting we’ve ever seen from Ecuador. Led by Argentine and ex Boca Juniors coach Gustavo Alfaro, the team have developed into a confident attacking side that play in transition. Under Alfaro, Ecuador are equally comfortable soaking up pressure as they are pressing and disrupting play further up the pitch. La Tricolor are flexible in formation, switching it up between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, allowing them to be compact in defence and chaotic in attack. At this year’s tournament, we can expect to see the full-backs bomb up during attacks with the defence switching to a back three as they search for a goal.
The squad has the right mix of rising stars and experienced veterans. In defence, Bayer Leverkusen’s 20 year old centre back, Piero Hincapie has been a regular since 2021. With 19 caps already, Hincapie has played an important role this year with Ecuador only losing one of their last ten games.
In midfield, holding it down and keeping things tight will be Brighton’s Moises Caicedo. A midfielder who has impressed everyone in the Premier League since joining the Seagulls last year, Caicedo likes to collect the ball from defence and progress it forward with strong driving runs. As his backup, Ecuador will be able to rely on veteran Christian Noboa who will be crucial when the going gets tough in the big games.
In attack, Ecuador have icon and legend Enner Valencia. Having played in the Premier League for West Ham and Everton, he may have been forgotten by most casual fans but Valencia is still as quick and dangerous as he’s ever been. Currently at Fenerbahçe, Ecuador’s all time top scorer is perfect for the side’s counter attacking style.
There’s been a lot of talk around how deep into the tournament Ecuador could go. Featuring in a group with Qatar, The Netherlands and AFCON champions Senegal, it’s not going to be easy but recent experiences against Argentina and Brazil have shown they can go toe to toe with the biggest names. With games against fellow World Cup competitors Saudi Arabia and Japan to come this week, we should be able to get a better idea on what sort shape Ecuador are in heading to Qatar. Whatever happens, they’ll be a team to watch.