In 2001, When Ecuador coach Hernán Darío Gómez was shot in the thigh by the bodyguard of Joselo Rodriguez, President of the second division Santa Rita soccer club, the relationship between football and political intervention in Ecuadorian sport had reached a significantly low point.
Fortunately Gomez’ shooting did not prove fatal. Allegedly, the attack was directly linked to the exclusion of the son of former Ecuadorian President, Abdal Bucarum, from the squad for the World Youth Championship. That anyone would order a strike for such a thing is unthinkable in civilised society.
Remarkably, Gomez’ assailants were never brought to justice. Any links between Rodriguez and the shooting were denied and the charges were dropped. In an act of televised farce, a lawyer acting on behalf of a member of the Bucarum family, claimed that Gomez’ injuries were caused by a rebounding bullet fired by Elkin Sanchez, the club trainer and Gomez’ close friend, despite the statements of eye witnesses to the contrary.
Perhaps even more remarkably, Gomez returned to work just a few weeks later to continue the incredible job of leading Ecuador to their first ever World Cup, which they would succeed in doing the following year.
Qualification for the 2002 World Cup and the election of Socialist candidate Rafael Correa to political office in 2006 were bright spots in a turbulent decade for Ecuador. Between 1996 and 2006, Ecuador elected no fewer than eight presidents, including Abdal Bucarum, who was later denounced for being mentally unstable. Bucarum would go on to live in exile in Panama. It was in this context that Ecuador would qualify for their first World Cup finals in 2002 and go one better by reaching the last sixteen in 2006.
That Ecuador were able to compete at the highest level of international competition at the turn of the century is quite astonishing given the paucity of footballing talent in the country, crippling poverty, and its historically poor performance in qualification up until then. It’s success in the new millennia owed much to the introduction of a significant number of talented Afro-Ecuadorians into the squad.
It took the appointment of the Montenegrin, Dušan Drašković in 1988, to shake things up as far as the identification of talent and the development of football in afro-Ecuadorian communities was concerned.
As manager of the Ecuador national team, Drašković ushered Ecuadorian football from the stone age to the modern age. The first thing he did was break down the way players were picked; he scouted sixteen different provinces to find the best players. He then began to work comprehensively with players, at the physical, tactical, and psychological levels.
For the first time, afro-Ecuadorian players were scouted and developed properly. Consequently, the black-majority province of Emeraldas and the settlement villages along the Chota Valley, contributed more than half of the Ecuador teams that qualified in 2002 and 2006.
The racial balance of the Ecuador team prompted some overtly racist comments in the South American media. The most high profile were from Phillip Butters, the Peruvian television presenter, who in a live show said of Afro Ecuadorian Felipe Caicedo that if a DNA test was done it would show that he was “not a human, but a monkey, a gorilla.” He also said ‘if the [afro-Ecuadorian] players bite you, you’d get Ebola.”
Ecuador did not perform brilliantly in the 2002 World Cup, finishing bottom of their group. However, they did score a notable victory over 1998 semi-finalists Croatia before they were sent packing.
You would be hard pressed to find anybody in Ecuador who would not agree that the performance at the 2006 world cup in Germany was the teams greatest achievement. In the group games, they defeated both Poland and Costa Rica to progress to the last 16.
After the last sixteen match with England in Stuttgart, on 25th June 2006, I swapped my white England shirt for the yellow shirt of Ecuador outside the Gottlieb Daimler stadium. The young female black Ecuador fan ran away delighted and my three mates laughed as the Ecuador shirt barely covered my belly.
At the time, I did not fully appreciate the significance of this transaction. To me, this had been a disappointing performance from England such was my ignorance and arrogance. Ecuador had hit the post and threatened to cause a major upset before David Beckham fired in a trademark free-kick on 60 minutes. Even then, Ecuador continued to be a danger and fought doggedly with no shortage of skill right up to the final whistle. That I was there with three great friends to witness Ecuador’s achievement, was, in retrospect, a privilege.
As if to confirm Ecuador’s newfound competitiveness in South America, Ecuadorian club side LDU Quito won the Copa Libertadores (South Ametica’s equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) in 2008.
Although 2010 World Cup qualification eluded them, Ecuador were back for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Despite securing four points in the group stage, with a victory over Honduras and an impressive draw with France, ‘La Tri‘ (Ecuador) were unable to repeat their 2006 success and would not progress to the knockout stages.
Having qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, drawing with Brazil and Argentina, and beating Uruguay, Bolivia and Colombia in the process, Ecuador may have some realistic hope of going at least one better this time around.
At their best, Ecuador are devastating going forward. Their 6-1 destruction of Colombia in November 2020 was no fluke. ‘La Tri’ like to play with width, get men in the box, and cross the ball in early. A blunt tactic this may be, yet it is impossibility difficult to defend against.
At their worst, Ecuador are a defensive shambles. The 2-1 home defeat to Peru, in June 2021, exposed their vulnerability grotesquely. Throughout qualification, Ecuador’s woeful defending prevented them from qualifying even more comfortably than they did. Ultimately, this may prove to be their Achilles heel in Qatar.
Whatever the outcome in Qatar, Ecuadorian football has come a long way since the 1990s. I, for one will be getting right behind ‘La Tri’ as they play the hosts (Qatar), Netherlands, and Senegal in their group games. Maybe, just maybe, the next time England and Ecuador meet will be in the quarter-finals in Qatar. One can dream.