After a 1-0 win over Nigeria in New Jersey and a 0-0 draw with Mexico in Chicago, Ecuador concluded its mini-tour of the United States with another 1-0 victory over the African opposition, this time the Cape Verde Islands, in Ft. Lauderdale.
The lines of results are narrow and unremarkable, and outside of Ecuador and its US-based society, many will not pay much attention. But Ecuador’s coach, Gustavo Alvaro of Argentina, should be able to look back at the past 10 days with some pleasure – not with a bit of relief.
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Alvaro’s side collected three clean sheets in a row, which is always a good thing for a coach, against one team headed to the World Cup and two more hand-picked to provide some practice for a rival like Senegal, which Ecuador is set to meet in Qatar. .
These matches seem to suggest Brazil 2014 veteran Alexandre Dominguez is the undisputed winner in the four-man fight to be the number one goalkeeper – an important decision that has been made.
Alvaro also took a look at a number of different players and systems. Against Cape Verde, he went with his most offensive lineup. There is usually room for one of the left-footed attacking midfielders – veteran Angel Mina or strong youngster Gonzalo Plata. This time they both played, along with Brighton talent Jeremy Sarmiento, whose fast feet were a highlight of the first half.
The happy nature of the team’s selection certainly reflected the mood in the camp. Suspicions were hanging over Ecuador’s participation in the World Cup after Chile launched a protest against FIFA, claiming that Ecuador submitted an ineligible player when he used right-back Byron Castillo several times. Chile’s claim that the player has false documents on his age as well as his nationality. If points from their opponent’s matches were awarded as 3-0 victories, Ecuador would lose the World Cup space – and Chile would take it.
On Friday, FIFA rejected Chile’s claim. Chile says it will appeal, and may take the case all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But at this point it would be a huge surprise if the ruling was reversed.
First, there are repercussions for the change at this point, with tickets and trade packages sold out. Second, there are the merits of the case. Chile has amassed evidence that Castillo may have been born in Colombia, but on the moving feast that represents football’s nationality, its significance is unclear.
Date of birth, for example, has nothing to do with the World Cup, and it’s not an age-specific competition. Castillo has clearly played his footballing career with clubs in Ecuador, over a period much longer than the five-year residency that is a FIFA requirement. He’s an Ecuadorean, and has never represented Colombia at any level, let alone in a competitive first-team match – which would rule him out from appearing with anyone else if he’s over the age of 21. It is clear, then, why Castillo should not be eligible to play for Ecuador, wherever he was born. Ecuador celebrated FIFA’s decision by awarding him his first friendly match this month.
Chile, who in the past few days lost 2-0 to both South Korea and Tunisia, might be better advised to focus their efforts on matters closer to home. Meanwhile, Ecuador has a fourth World Cup final to focus on, and they are confident this could be their best one yet.
In 2002 and 2014, they failed to get out of the group stage. In 2006, they beat Poland and Costa Rica to set up a second round match with England, where they fell from a David Beckham free kick.
This time their group is tough – the Netherlands and hosts Qatar, as well as Senegal. But Ecuador has its own virtues. Their team is young, fast and physically strong. They can defend high and press, or fall back deep and leave room for their counterattack.
With his unobtrusive, serious style, coach Alvaro does a great job of achieving it. He was a late pick to take charge of the squad, and was brought in shortly before the start of the World Cup qualifiers after former coach Jordi Cruyff withdrew. But he proved to be an excellent fit, and his faith in the youth of Ecuador was bold and refreshing. He’s had a good few days, with a potential cloud being the injury that Plata, one of these rising youngsters, suffered in the last few minutes of the match against Cape Verde.
A little over two months before the World Cup draw, Brazil coach Tite was telling anyone listening that Ecuador would be one of the surprises in the competition. In the penultimate FIFA dates before the competition, the Alfaro team was intriguing rather than amazing. But that’s fine.
Alvaro says his team is running at half capacity, however, they aren’t conceding goals. And if they don’t stun anyone in June, that could add to the size of the surprise in November and December.