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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Atahualpa remains the key as Ecuador advances to the World Cup

Photo credit: via Instagram
For several months late last year and during the spring of this year it seemed like Ecuador could do no wrong in its World Cup qualifying campaign. Goleadas over Paraguay and impressive ties away to Venezuela and Uruguay. Every game at home they won. And then came a low. A tie versus Argentina at home and a loss at Peru and a tie away at Bolivia. Usually these games meant 9 points.

It was the Caicedo-Benitez tandem that gave Ecuador the dream of reaching its third ever World Cup. But suddenly we saw that this wasn't an invincible Ecuador. Dropping a game at Peru for the first time in five World Cup cycles gave Ecuadorians a scare that they might not make it. Then came the tragic loss of Christian Benitez.

But after the letdown of the Bolivia game in La Paz came one more chance to win at home at the Atahualpa. And that's what did it for Ecuador. The Uruguay game has come to signify the ultimate key to the World Cup for Ecuador. It was there that a Kaviedes goal in 2001 sealed their first ever entry into the tournament and it was there last Friday that Jefferson Montero put Ecuador in a position where the worst they could do was a continental playoff versus Jordan.

Ecuador ran all over all night versus the Charruas and Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani attacked but eventually subsided and rescinded control to the Ecuador defense. Was it the altitude?

Invariably, one has to give some credit to the altitude when it comes to Ecuador's impressive streak at home: 7 wins and 1 tie and zero losses. But one should say the same for Bolivia, correct? And yet the Altiplano crew cannot win at home and gets pummeled away. So yes, we have to give credit to an Ecuador futbol that has ascended leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades.

From the days of Dusan Draskovic to the rise of the Colombian guard in charge of the national team: from Maturana, who got the country ever so close to 1998, to Hernan Dario Gomez, the man that gave the country its ultimate wish in reaching Korea/Japan 2002, to Luis Fernando Suarez, who brought Ecuador to the round of 16 at Germany 2006. It was a decade-long progression that came to a stop with Suarez's second round and Sixto Vizuete. But Reinaldo Rueda picked up where Suarez left off in 2006 and Ecuador earned the right to own their house and defend their status as a South American force.

Is Ecuador a true contender? Hard to imagine it at this point. Results are based on playing in neutral venues in big tournaments and the country has been downright horrid in the Copa America. But one thing is clear, Estadio Atahualpa and Quito are fortresses that the team has guarded zealously and where players have shown all the emotion, athleticism and fantasy that make for great teams. In qualifiers it's a simple formula: win your home games and snatch a few points abroad.

Today the team lost away to Chile 1-2, but the goals collected in Quito along the way set them apart from Uruguay to clinch the fourth and final spot for Conmebol. Uruguay will now face Jordan in the continental playoffs and Ecuador is now in Brazil 2014--and deservedly so. Caicedo sealed it with a goal in Santiago, keeping the goal differential unreachable for Uruguay. 

For over two years the crowds in Quito watched the team win and score and protect their stadium. They made it clear that Ecuador is a talented soccer country and has been so for the last 16 years, but the extra catalyst is undoubtedly the 2700 meters all visitors must climb to defeat Ecuador at the Atahualpa.

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