Doha: Veteran striker Enner Valencia, who has gone from selling cows’ milk for his first boots to scoring Ecuador’s last six World Cup goals, is rightly hailed as “Superman” at home.
Yet the 33-year-old, whose latest goal heroics came in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands on Friday, is just the spearhead of a potent young team on the verge of at least equalling their previous best ever finish at a World Cup.
Gustavo Alfaro’s side is brimming with young talent and outmuscled the Dutch, sitting 36 places above them in the FIFA world rankings, with a thrilling second half comeback that kept both teams joint top of Group A.
Ecuador’s past best World Cup showing was a last 16 place in Germany in 2006.
Alfaro’s team relies heavily on midfielder Moises Caicedo, who plays with an assurance beyond his 21 years and had already been turning heads in the Premier League with Brighton & Hove Albion.
Some media and fans are even comparing his style with French midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. Like Valencia, Caicedo comes from a poor family, the youngest of 10 siblings.
It was the dogged Caicedo who won possession back on Friday to feed left back and fellow Brighton player Pervis Estupinan for a stinging shot that Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert could only parry into Valencia’s path for a simple tap-in.
Another young prospect, 22-year-old Gonzalo Plata, also had an outstanding game and could have won it with a shot that cannoned off the crossbar some 10 minutes later.
Ecuador’s deserved draw against the Dutch, following their swatting aside of Qatar 2-0 in a first ever opening defeat for a World Cup host, will bring a reappraisal of their prospects after being largely considered rank outsiders.
Those who have followed “La Tri” (The Tricolour), however, are not surprised after watching them haul themselves out of perhaps the world’s most gruelling qualifiers in South America, finishing only behind heavyweights Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
A former player and commentator, Alfaro revolutionised Ecuador’s ageing squad, successfully scouring for new talent. That meant Ecuador had the lowest average age 26 years and 10 months in the South American qualifiers and also fielded six players under 20, more than any rivals.
“I am proud to lead this young, talented squad,” he beamed after the match against the Dutch. “We are up to the challenge.” His team are playing with added emotion and steel after having to leave behind one of their number, Byron Castillo, in a controversy over his nationality that had jeopardised their very participation at the World Cup after a complaint by Chile.
The headlines, however, all belong to Valencia, who again left the field injured on Friday, with a knee strain sustained in the opening game against Qatar. To the relief of his fans, however, he was able to amble back on to celebrate at the end.
Ecuador’s resistance and then second half superiority leave Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal with plenty to think about.
The 71-year-old is suffering from prostate cancer and has decided to call time on a nearly four-decade career in club and country management after the Qatar tournament.
Before then, he believes he has a real chance of handing his nation the prize that has always eluded them - including three traumatic defeats in the 1974, 1978 and 2010 finals.
But his team will have to show far more intensity than they have done so far, in a laboured 2-0 win against Senegal then the draw against Ecuador, if they are to achieve that.