James Lawton: Ecuador undazzled by stars in reaching for the heavens

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The Independent Football

Here in the forest it is one of those old places, a morbid German might say, where you come to die and make not too much fuss.

Unfortunately, perhaps, for England no one appears to have told the Ecuador team who represent such a disturbingly serious threat in Sunday's round of 16 game in Stuttgart.

As the Ecuadorians work intensely in the late afternoon sunshine, Alex Aguina says: "What we have here is a team with just one thing on their minds - the biggest football match in our history.

"No, there are no wives or girlfriends here. And there is just one star. It is the team. Girlfriends and wives will be seen after the last match, when our tournament is over." Aguina moves easily among his old team-mates. He is the most famous player Ecuador has ever known, a young hirsute version of Bobby Charlton, a playmaker of guile and resilience who led his nation to their first World Cup in the Far East four years ago.

Now he is the resident philosopher, augmenting the inspirational work of the Colombian coach Luis Suarez, with a solicitous word here, a prod of encouragement, even censure, there.

He is prepared also to take on the challenge that some back home in Quito consider roughly the equivalent of climbing the Andes with no more equipment than a toothpick. It is cooling the turbulent spirit of Ivan Kaviedes, a crashing failure at Crystal Palace in five games but now a volatile, potent attacker at Diego Maradona's first club, Argentinos Juniors. Kaviedes is the character here, partly because of his bizarre habit of pulling on a Spiderman mask whenever he scores - a gesture of remembrance for a former team-mate who died tragically - and partly for a private life which the young George Best might have found a little taxing.

His nickname is "The Inseminator", the residue of a particularly turbulent phase of his life when he was hit by three paternity suits in as many weeks.

But then Aguina insists: "We may have a few characters here but no stars. If I have any influence," he says, "it is only to remind these players how much they represent to their people and that if they miss this chance to beat England, a famous team, they will never forgive themselves if they don't give it everything they have.

"As South Americans we have always looked in awe at Brazil and Argentina, but we have worked to make something of ourselves as a football nation and this is another step.

"England is a strong, powerful team but, believe me, they are causing no fear in our camp. Believe me, too, that we will win.

"How will we win? We will pass the ball, we will work very closely together, we will seek out the weaknesses of England because we know they have them - we have seen them here in their matches. And then we will strike. I can see it quite clearly." This is a game plan that depends on considerable nerve and patience, but perhaps it should not be so surprising in that the coach Suarez is a man who has played and coached his football in maybe the least tranquillised corner of the world game.

As a player Suarez won theCopa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional Medellin.

Medellin, of course, has a reputation for quick-fire violence that is second to none, a fact which was underlined most horrendously in the wake of the 1994 World Cup in America.

Then Colombia were thought to have a contending team under the influence of Carlos Valderrama, a player with big hair and even bigger talent.

But the Colombian dream collapsed when their central defender, the normally elegant Andres Escobar turned the ball into his own net and caused defeat and ejection at the hands of the United States.

Soon enough Escobar was shot dead in the street by an aggrieved gambler who had backed his countrymen to win. The convicted man, Humberto Munoz, was released last year after serving 10 years.

Suarez has perhaps never been at such risk in his career as an international player and a respected coach but as he says: "If you care enough about football, winning is the most important thing - that and the knowledge that you have done all you can."

Suarez caused some controversy with his decision to leave out five key players in his final Group A game with Germany. Key men Ivan Hurtado, a veteran defender, and strikers Agustin Delgado and Carlos Tenorio sat on the bench as he virtually waved through a German team gathering strength at a formidable rate. But Aguina shrugs and says: "It was the logical thing - I would have left 10 players out.

"We had already qualified for the next stage, so why not be at your strongest? It wasn't a matter of picking our next opponents, it was just to be as strong as we could be when it mattered.

"The coach said that Sweden and England and Ecuador play the same way, but that was not right; we play very differently to those teams and maybe the quote wasn't right. There is no question how we will play. We will pass the ball and we will be true to ourselves." Suarez is quite uncompromising about his belief that he has a team psychologically prepared to deliver a swordstroke to England's faltering campaign.

"I feel relaxed yet at the same time I'm very excited," says the 44-year-old, who looks as if he could walk on to the set of an old gangster film in his black suit and carefully knotted tie. "It will be a failure of our spirit if we do not give everything we have in going further. If we didn't go to our limits, well, it would be a shame, a betrayal. We cannot accept that we have gone as far as possible. My men have to remember that it is a long road to the World Cup, so the most important thing is to stay on it as long as possible. It is a duty we all have, the players, the coach, everyone associated with this squad. It is a duty to the other players, to the nation and for each individual to himself.

"In life you have to take every opportunity that comes to you and we have done this so far."

No doubt Suarez, for all the intensity of his ambition, is as capable of spinning lines as the next man in the neighbouring technical area. For instance, before Ecuador's surrender against Germany, he was talking of that game being the big test of his team's nerve and ability. Now the moment of truth has been transferred to Stuttgart on Sunday.

It is a freedom with shifting realities that the big man will perhaps be forgiven, at least in the high altitude of his adopted little country, which has never reached so hopefully for the football heavens.

The message on Suarez's mobile phone is quite explicit. It says: "If you dream it, you can do it."

According to Aguina, Suarez has already pushed back the Ecuadorian dream. But then he adds: "In football there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe in yourself enough - and you can play a bit."

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