Ecuador: 'We are in the business of bringing down giants'

How Ecuador's David Beckham shares his wealth to bring hope and health to Piquiucho
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The Independent Football

Behind the wild celebrations was the feeling that finally Ecuador had achieved something that had attracted global attention. "The majority of humanity," gushed the heavyweight El Comercio newspaper, "will know that there exists a country called Ecuador which is more than an imaginary line on the map."

Nearly five years later that same feeling burns brighter than ever. After two impressive victories in the group stage they take on one of football's glamour sides. The eyes of the world will be on them tomorrow afternoon. Now they can trace a line of their own, through the second round and the winner of Portugal against the Netherlands all the way to the semi-finals. England's task in Stuttgart is to make sure that line stays as imaginary as the equator.

Four years ago the mantra of Ecuador's then coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, was: "We're going to the World Cup to learn". It was the voice of experience. He had been assistant coach of his native Colombia during USA '94, and had seen how the side had crumbled after months of being hyped beyond its capabilities. On the road to Ecuador's World Cup debut in 2002 Gomez was obsessed with making sure that expectations were played down.

His brash and charismatic successor, fellow Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez, has no such qualms.He stepped in two years ago after a disastrous Copa America showed that some of the team stalwarts had grown old and slow together. Unwilling to break up the side he had built, Gomez resigned, Suarez came in and immediately axed the old guard. He also raised the sights of those who remained. There would be no more talk of "going to the World Cup to learn". After qualification for Germany had been sealed, Suarez described Ecuador's 2002 performance as "interesting" - they beat Croatia after losing to Italy and Mexico, and were eliminated after the first round.

"Today that's not good enough," he continued. "We have established an objective of playing more than three games." Mission accomplished. But he has already raised the bar. The image at the end of the opening game spoke volumes. Ecuador's calculations had always included beating Costa Rica and the near certainty of losing to Germany. The first game against Poland, then, was the key. But when the camera settled on Suarez at the final whistle on Ecuador's 2-0 win he showed not a flicker of euphoria. Rather, he was making a mental adjustment to the new situation. This is one ambitious coach.

"I wasn't a star," says Suarez of his playing career, which he ended to take up coaching at the age of 29. "I want to achieve as a coach what I wasn't able to do as a player." He was with Atletico Nacional in his native Medellin when in 1989 they became the first Colombian team to win South America's Copa Libertadores. Suarez occasionally saw service as a defensive midfielder, and playing in this position has clearly shaped his thinking on the game. "Nowadays," he says, "any side can complicate matters by packing the midfield with battlers. A good team is one which attacks and defends well down the flanks." It is a quote which explains the way his side operate.

In the centre of midfield Segundo Castillo and Edwin Tenorio are an abrasive pair, who gave little space and less respite to Miroslaw Szymkowiak and Walter Centeno, the playmakers of Poland and Costa Rica respectively. Behind them is the centre-back partnership of Ivan Hurtado and Geovanny Espinoza.

The former, the cultured captain, organises the defence and wins his tackles with the air of an old-fashioned schoolmaster gently admonishing a wayward student. The gangling Espinoza deals with the aerial threat.

The full-backs Ulises de la Cruz and Neicer Reasco are expected to break quickly and link up with the team's two talented midfielders, Edison Mendez and Luis Antonio Valencia, who frequently switch wings during the course of the game. Both are dangerous with their long-range shooting. Mendez, in particular, is a specialist at keeping his fierce shots down.

It is crosses, though, which are the team's main source of goals as they seek to supply the powerful strike force of Agustin Delgado and Carlos Tenorio. Indeed, with the full-back Paul Ambrossi, not the tightest of defenders, on the bench the team lack a left foot. All of their goals so far have come from balls played in from the right. In their third game it was noticeable that Philipp Lahm, such an impressive attacking left-back against Costa Rica and Poland, was much more reluctant to come forward. Instead, he stayed deep and made sure that his opponents' favourite route to goal was blocked, and Ecuador hardly threatened. Suarez has been heaping praise on the forward bursts of Ashley Cole - a hint, perhaps, that he hopes England will not use the same tactic. "We can't repeat the very poor performance we gave against Germany," he said. "If so, we'll be straight back on the way home."

Instead, he sees the Germany match as valuable practice for taking on England. "I think they have similar characteristics," he said, "especially in the emphasis they place on the aerial game, and the way they open up the field in order to send in their crosses. In South America we're not used to this style. With the exception of Paraguay, we don't play this way. England are good in the air. They're direct, quick and strong. We treat the ball well, we look to knit together and pass to each other on the field and put on a show. We're in the business of bringing down the giants."

He is the Ecuadorian equivalent of David Beckham, but when Ulises de la Cruz goes on a spending spree he doesn't come home with designer clothes and flash cars - he installs running water in his home town.

In contrast to the spending habits of most footballers, the Aston Villa defender who will mark Wayne Rooney today gives 20 per cent of his £15,000 weekly wage to charity. In the past five years he has installed running water, electricity and built a school and a hospital in the town of Piquiucho, where he grew up the son of farmers.

"It's true that I am a celebrity in Ecuador but the town that I come from only has 3,000 inhabitants," the 32-year-old said. "Everybody knows each other from birth so I never forget what my origins are.

"When I was growing up in Piquiucho I didn't have a great deal - there was no running water, we didn't always have money for the electricity and the education system was not well organised.

"But because I was good at football I was given an opportunity that has now brought me to England and a life I could not have hoped for in Ecuador.

"Because the facilities in my home village were not very good - there was no medical centre which meant that people had to travel to Ibarra, the nearest town, and children didn't always get the education they needed - I decided to set up a foundation.

"At the moment, we have a medical centre with a doctor, a nurse and a dentist and a primary school, which has about 200 pupils. We also help to modernise other buildings.

"People from the surrounding villages have been flocking to the medical centre, so unfortunately it is not big enough for all the people, so we're hoping to expand."

Ecuador Uncovered The bluffers' guide to England's opponents

England will have to keep an eye on a Kangaroo, Little Devil, Bam Bam, Long Legs, Tin, New Hands and The Infallible when they face Ecuador. Those are the nicknames given to Felix Borja, Christian Lava, Ivan Hurtado, Jose Perluza, Agustin Delgado, Edwin Villafuerte and Marlon Ayovi respectively.

The food in Ecuador is diverse and often delicious. Whole baked guinea pig is especially popular high in the mountain regions.

Some less well known Ecuadorians include "musician" Christina Aguilera's dad, Fausto, and the father of Northern Ireland "legend" Lawrie Sanchez. Lorena Bobbit, famous for scything her husband's tackle, also hails from Ecuador.

Ecuador play their home matches at Quito which is 8,500ft above sea level. The city has another fascinating distinction, being the world's only capital city to start with the letter "Q".

Ecuador had a special supporter with them on the team bus after their 2-0 victory over Poland in their opening Group A match: step forward the reigning Miss Ecuador, Katty Lopez.

The Mayor of Quito, Paco Moncayo, honoured Franz Beckenbauer as an illustrious guest and granted "Der Kaiser" the key to the city prior to the World Cup.

The Ecuador coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, joined the debate as to whether players should have sex during the World Cup. Suarez said: "It really all depends on who the woman is. But a little bit is OK."