Coach: Colombian Reinaldo Rueda’s most memorable managerial moment came as manager of Ecuador’s fellow group member, Honduras, guiding them to the 2010 World Cup Finals, an accomplishment which garnered him honorary Honduran citizenship. However, at the finals Honduras lost all three group games and he left in a bit of a disgrace, and so Rueda has a great deal to prove to the world this summer in Brazil. A classic disciplinarian and a strong leader, he loves his players and is loved – and listened to – in return,
Ecuador play a fun to watch 4-4-2 with attacking flair from the wings—notably Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and young starlet Jefferson Montero—and they also counter with lightening speed and give you the impression that the could score at any moment. But despite their love of the counter, Rueda coaches them toward a possession game, as well, hanging onto the ball in midfield with short passes and quick runs. Think Barcelona with only 80 percent of the talent.
At this point just who exactly will start at keeper for Ecuador in their first group game is still up in the air. Alexander Dominguez started 12 of their 16 qualifiers, but has missed the last four matches with an injury and Maximo Banguera—one of those weirdo keepers that always plays in a baseball cap—has deputized admirably. Banguera is better on the ball then Dominguez (who prefers to just boom the ball into the opponent’s half) and therefore might get the call as Rueda looks for a possession based game. Unfortunately, Banguera’s performance against Mexico recently did him no favors, and so the position remains in limbo.
Defense is a real concern for Ecuador, and so the closest Ecuador have to a true defensive “rock” is Jorge Guagua, even though his style is more “paper” or “scissors” than “rock”. He is an entertaining defender thanks to his well developed technical skills on the ball. He isn’t an “anywhere will do” kind of guy, preferring to play the ball in his own end, to look for a pass and move the ball up to the mids on the ground. Guagua is the kind of defender that will make you ooh and aah as he completes a triangular movement out of the corner, but will also make you tear your hair out with frustration as he seems to refuse to resort to a simple clearance. All of that said, he tackles with the best of them and can even score a goal or two. (When he does score, you can usually count on an interesting celebration,as well, like taking off his boot and pretending it’s a phone, as he did on one occasion.)
Though he plays rather deep to truly be called Ecuador’s “creative” force, midfielder Christian Noboa, who plies his trade in Russia with Dynamo Moscow of all places, is a brilliant passer of the ball. Playing just in front of the back four, Noboa keeps play ticking over from defense to attack for the entire 90 minutes. He’s a true metronome of a player: One touch, pass. One touch, pass. One touch, pass. And those passes are quite often jaw dropping in their simple perfection. Noboa has the special ability to look up and quickly find the best outlet for the ball, playing soccer as if he is an all-pro quarterback surveying the field and finding his receiver. Time after time after time. Noboa is the Dude’s rug: he ties the whole room together.
Jefferson Montero has only scored four goals at the international level, but he looks to be ready to explode onto the scene. His goal against the Dutch this past May is the stuff of legend. A perfectly timed run followed by a turn and a touch that reminded most of the kind of goal Holland used to score. Great on the ball, he always looks to be a half step faster than his opponent. He plays on the left and isn’t the slightest afraid of running straight at a defenseman or drifting into the middle. The ball never controls him, he always controls the ball. Brazil is going to be his coming out party, and he will score at least one goal that will give you chills.
Ecuador’s home stadium in the city of Quito is at the shockingly high elevation of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, and opponents have a terrible time acclimating. Some might see South American sides as having a home-field advantage of sorts, as they are used to the jungle like conditions, but the lack of thin air might cancel out Ecuador’s leg up on their opponents.
One story to watch is the inclusion of aging midfielder Segundo Castillo, this despite the fact that he is surely going to miss at least the first two group stage matches with injury. Giving away a squad spot to an injured player feels like a poor decision on Reunda’s part, despite Castillo’s commitment to his country, and it could be the call that comes back to haunt the manager if Ecuador fail to perform admirably.
Christian “Chucho” Benitez—who scored for Ecuador in their 4-1 defeat of Paraguay during qualifying—passed away after suffering a cardiac event on July 29, 2013. He was only 27 years old. Benitez’s teammates took his death very hard—Rueda had to fight back tears at a press conference after his passing, and Antonio Valencia has a tattoo in his memory—and their World Cup in Brazil has been dedicated to his memory. This will only be a “feelgood” story, however, if Benitez’s death can inspire the team to new heights.
It’s an easy group, but with their poor away record, their poor showing in recent friendlies and their last game against France, look for Ecuador to play some pretty football, to run hard and to entertain, but to also bow out before the knockout stages.