Sporting fulfilment comes rarely to Ecuador, a land of frequent earthquakes, landslides, floods and drought. Eking out an existence tends to take precedence. When sporting success has arrived it has emerged as gradually as a giant turtlefrom the lapping waters on the nation's Galapagos Islands. Jefferson Leonardo Perez Quezada was the nation's first and only Olympic gold medallist in 1996, and he was scarcely a hare. He was a 20km walker.
In such a context, Ecuador's meeting with England this afternoon is way up there in the stratosphere, higher even than the capital, Quito, at 9,300 feet, the reason why some sceptics, including the Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, suggest they are so lung-crushingly impressive at home.
The population cluster around televisions to watch the Premiership and Champions' League action each week. Now Ecuador's representatives, a collection of home-based performers and exports to Europe - including some never-quite-made-its in England - coached by the Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez, meet those celebrity icons head on.
Yet, as Alfonso Laso Ayala, a reporter and director for the national television station Teleamazonas, contends, the relative anonymity of the Ecuador players hasadvantages. "We are familiar with Rooney, Terry, Lampard... It is the opposite for your team. You don't know about Ecuador, other than what you have seen here."
Well, not quite true. The Aston Villa defender Ulises de la Cruz is Ecuador's most distinguished export, which is not actually saying a lot when you consider the others. Those with an almost forensic long-term memory may recall Agustin Delgado and Ivan Kaviedes, who between them made 15 appearances for Southampton and Crystal Palace respectively. The former, who goes by the affectionate name of "El Tin", attributes his lack of appearances to knee and back injuries.
As for the latter, who first came to prominence in 1998 when he scored a remarkable 43 goals for his then club Emelec back home, his problems appear more cerebral. "Kaviedes has played in many teams around Europe, Italy, Spain, England, and he never stays," says Ayala. "I don't know if it's all in his head."
Two years ago, Kaviedes reportedly walked out of an Ecuador training session to drive to the airport, where his wife was arriving. He was left out of the national team for a year.
"Suarez says you have to talk with him, understand him [Ayala motions an arm round the shoulder] to keep him strong. Suarez admires his football and uses man-management to try and help him make his football good for the team - even though the other things [his temperament] could be bad for the group.
"He's a very good player. He has a capability to make goals, and score them. Kaviedes has told me he brings to the World Cup two goals. He has scored one. Now, he says, he has one left in his pocket."
Delgado was omitted from the 3-0 defeat by Germany on Tuesday, along with four other probable starters against England: the captain, Ivan Hurtado, Segundo Castillo, Neicer Reasco and Carlos Tenorio. Having qualified, there was nothing to be gained by playing the strongest XI against the hosts. The strategy has given half the team 10 days' rest.
The contrast in footballing cultures between Ecuador's possession football and England's more frenetic, direct approach will be fascinating. "England like to play a couple of short passes and then one long," says Hurtado, the elegant defender with the epithet of "Bam Bam" who is the most-capped footballer in Ecuador's history. "They have good forwards and a very strong midfield, so it's important to keep things very tight. The most important thing for us to remem-ber is to keep the ball on the ground and play smart football."
Hurtado will be charged with one of the most onerous respons-ibilities in his illustrious career, quelling the menace of Wayne Rooney. He appears unfazed. "I don't have a plan," he says. "One player doesn't win a game of football. It's a team sport. This is not a game of tennis."
Qualifiers for the previous World Cup finals for the first time, Ecuador swiftly made a place in the last 16 secure this time. Ayala claims that today's match will attract a 92 per cent share of viewers in Ecuador. "That means all the country is watching," Ayala says. "The other eight per cent? That's because they're not in their houses. They're in some bar or restaurant."
He adds: "To qualify for second stage of the World Cup is the biggest thing ever for our country. We feel very lucky to play against one of the best footballing teams in the world. If we reach the quarter-finals, the country will collapse in amazement. But today we are dreaming, and we can dream a little more." Of an outcome that would bring Eriksson his worst nightmares.
11 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT ECUADOR
1. BETTER THAN BRAZIL?
Ecuador beat both Argentina and Brazil to qualify for Germany. On the way to their first World Cup in 2002, they finished above Brazil.
2. ENTERTAINING HIGH HOPES
La Tri took 23 out of 28 points at home in Quito, which is two miles (9,300ft) above sea level. Their only away win was against Bolivia in La Paz - at 11,800ft.
3. LITTLE TO SHOUT ABOUT?
Christian Lara, 5ft 3 3 /4in tall, is the smallest player at the World Cup.
4. WHEN WE WERE KIDD'S
England have played Ecuador once, in Quito before the 1970 World Cup. England won 2-0, Franny Lee and Brian Kidd scoring.
5. PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER
Former captain Vinicio Luna, the team doctor and the head of PR are being investigated for alleged involvement in US visa fraud.
6. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Ecuador's FA have marketed a perfume called "Dribbling" in three ranges: Training, 9 and Celebration.
7. AIN'T NO OTHER MAN?
The pop singer Christina Aguilera has an Ecuadorean father, Fausto, from whom she is estranged.
8. PUT YOUR SHIRT ON THEM
The shirt Giovanni Lapentti wore to beat Arvind Parmar in the 2000 Davis Cup was sold for £2,685.
9. SEVERING TIES WITH HOME
Lorena Bobbitt, who achieved fame in 1993 for cutting her husband's penis off, was born in Ecuador.
10. EIGHT LEGS BETTER THAN TWO
The Spider-Man mask that Ivan Kaviedes wore after scoring a goal was a tribute to the striker Otilino Tenorio, who died in a car accident.
11. COACH'S TICKET TO RIDE
When coach Luis Fernando Suarez was asked if players should be allowed to have sex at the World Cup, he said: "It depends on who the woman is." Then Miss Ecuador showed up on the team bus.
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