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Ecuador's Byron Castillo takes part in a training session at the Casa de la Seleccion (House of the National Team) complex in Quito on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

Sangolqui, Ecuador: The youth academy pitches of Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle, a rising force in South American football, are always busy. As teenagers aged 12 and 13 play informal games, older ones practice in short spurts under the supervision of academy coaches.

About 150 youngsters train at the club’s headquarters in the city of Sangolqui, the second most populous in the province of Pichincha and also nicknamed “the heart of the valley.” That is where Ecuador’s national team has found a key source of players as the team returns to the World Cup after missing the tournament four years ago.

Among the 28 players chosen by coach Gustavo Alfaro for two friendlies in September, 12 came from youth divisions of the 64-year-old club that this year won the Copa Sudamericana for the second time. Players like Bayer Leverkusen defender Piero Hincape and Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo, who are both 20, and 21-year-old Real Valladolid winger Gonzalo Plata, are among them.

On the rise since 2007

Alfaro, who took over at Ecuador in the middle of 2020 after Jordi Cruyff left the job without a single match in charge, has taken advantage of the star factory of the country’s youngest club in first division. Independiente has been on the rise since 2007, and played a Copa Libertadores final in 2016 and won two Copa Sudamericana titles recently.

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Ecuador's Marco Angulo, Michael Estrada and Byron Castillo during a training session. Image Credit: AFP

Independiente places a priority on players’ education, with many of them finishing at the very least their high school programme.

“We want a seal of quality, we want this DNA to be not only on the pitch, but also in our trips, hotels, in their studies,” Independiente sporting director Roberto Arroyo told The Associated Press. “In youth divisions we always want Independiente to be the best-dressed, the most punctual, the one who cleans the dressing room after use.”

When many academy players showed up for their high school graduation on August 18, 13-year-old Jefferson Camacho was their master of ceremonies wearing an impeccable suit and black tie — and he handled his duties full of confidence.

“We teach kids that their results are absolutely their responsibility, there’s neither excuses nor anyone to blame for them not to be the best,” said Juan Martinez, a coach in the club’s under-19 section and a coordinator for players joining the senior team. “Our players must accept our norms and regulations, we are giving them the best foundations through values.”

In Group A

When a youngster is having difficulty adapting, psychologists, teachers and coaches work together in an attempt to help him overcome his problems.

Arroyo said the club is now selling 18 and 19-year-old players, and no longer those aged 25 and older. In August, Independiente authorised the transfer of Joel Ordonez, an 18-year-old defender, to Bruges, and 19-year-old midfielder Anthony Valencia to Royal Antwerp.

Ecuador is in Group A at Qatar with Netherlands, Senegal and host Qatar. It will open the tournament on November 20 against the host country with a team whose average age is just 25.3, an average lowered by the young players from Independiente.