The Tri – the yellow, red and blue Tri, that is – has a monster squad. Specifically, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of team. In qualifying in fourth place from South America, Reinaldo Rueda’s squad went 7-0-1 at home (the only blemish being a 1-1 tie with Argentina).
On the road, however, they couldn’t seem to do anything right, managing only a dismal 0-5-3 record.
Too bad that the World Cup isn’t being held in the Andes. La Tri played all its home games in Quito, which is about 9,300 feet above sea level.
The schedule-makers have tried to make Ecuador as much at home as possible, slotting them into the two Cup host cities at highest altitude, Brasilia (3,800 feet) and Curitiba (3,000 feet).
Let's not talk about that one game in Rio.
But Ecuador has enough offensive firepower, wherever they play, to put a scare into any team. They probably don’t have enough to get themselves to the knockout round, even from one of the weakest Cup groups.
Players to Watch
Antonio Valencia: There are times, playing for Manchester United, that Valencia looks like one of the best wingers in the world. There are also games in which his name hardly ever seems to get called.
If Ecuador has any kind of shot of advancing beyond the group stage, Valencia will have to be at his best. Now a veteran of 28, he played every game of the 2006 Cup for Ecuador without finding the goal.
Valencia was deeply affected by the death of the striker Christian Benítez, who came up through the national team ranks with him, in Qatar last year under controversial circumstances (he wasn’t given immediate attention at the hospital).
Felipe Caicedo: In Rueda’s offensive scheme since the death of Benítez, Caicedo has often been the lone striker, which means that so much more rides on his performance. The speedy 25-year-old currently plays for Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates, but has had stops at Manchester City in the Premier League and with Spanish club Málaga.
Jefferson Montero: Lining up on the left side, opposite to Valencia, is a 24-year-old dynamo who plays for Monarcas Morelia in the Liga MX. Despite his youth, Montero is experienced at the international level. European interest in the winger began to climb after Valencia said in November that he wouldn’t mind if Man U bought the transfer rights for Montero. “He’s an intelligent player and he gets better every day,” Valencia said.
Christian Noboa: The 29-year-old midfielder has played most of his career in the Russian league, where he now stars for Dynamo Moscow. Noboa was first called up to the national team in 2006, but he didn't become a regular until Rueda rolled into town in September 2010. Noboa’s passing abilities extend to every corner of the field—he will be instrumental to getting the ball out to the wings and Valencia and Montero.
Segundo Castillo: The 32-year-old holding midfielder played every minute of Ecuador’s 2006 Cup appearance, when La Tri reached the Round of 16, where it was defeated by England, 1-0. After stints at European clubs like Red Star Belgrade, Everton and Wolverhampton, he’s now in the soccer backwater of Al-Hilal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Reinaldo Rueda: When Christian Benítez died of heart failure on July 29, 2013, the coach of La Tri had to reassess everything. “A player of Christian's characteristics,” Rueda told Reuters earlier this year, “both for his human qualities and soccer skills, is practically irreplaceable."
Slowly, however, Rueda has gone about replacing the irreplaceable, and, apart from Benítez’s death, wrapping up a berth at this year’s Cup had to feel good for the Colombian-born coach and his squad.
Rueda was a youth team coach for the Colombian national squad but was elevated to the senior squad after they opened qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a grisly 0-4-1 record. They missed out on Germany, but Rueda caught on at Honduras and led Los Catrachos to South Africa in 2010.
They failed to score a goal.
Meanwhile, Ecuador reached new heights in 2006, reaching the Round of 16 in Germany, but couldn’t maintain that level, failing to qualify in 2010.
In Brazil, both coach and country hope to make amends for past failure.
Group E is not imposing, to say the least. The favorite here is supposed to be Switzerland, a team that hopped seven spots in the FIFA rankings at the time of the draw to edge out the Netherlands as one of the top squads. France can still play brilliantly in short stretches, but Les Bleus are a shadow of their 1998 greatness. The last team, Honduras, is electric and deeply unpredictable. Any of these four could claim the top spot just as easily as it could wash out of the Cup leaving behind a trail of embarrassing performances.
Ecuador may be the only South American country not on the Caribbean coast in which soccer or fútbol is not the undisputed king of sports. A variant of volleyball played with a smaller ball and only three players per side called Ecua-volley (or just “boly”) may be just as popular.
v. Switzerland, Sun. June 15, 12 p.m., Brasilia
v. Honduras, Fri., June 20, 6 p.m., Curitiba
v. France, Wed., June 25, 4 p.m., Rio de Janeiro
All times Eastern