Saturday 02 April 2022, 15:00

Generation change key to Ecuador turnaround

  • Ecuador, absent from Russia 2018, have qualified for Qatar 2022

  • Team had lowest average age in South American qualifiers

  • Caicedo, Hincapie and Plata represent new generation ushered in by coach Alfaro

Two events, separated by only a few months, shaped the future of the Ecuadorian national team in 2019.

La Tri had just failed to secure a spot at Russia 2018, despite having won the first four matches of the South American qualifiers. After flying off the starting blocks, they faded badly and dropped out of contention on the penultimate matchday, an experience that mentally scarred players and fans alike. The embattled squad travelled to Brazil with the intention of going through a healing process at the Copa America, but the situation worsened, as they failed to win a single match. A few months later, Ecuador’s U-20 side finished third at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019 – the country’s best-ever result in that age category. Impressive performers like Gonzalo Plata, Diego Palacios and Jose Cifuentes appeared mature beyond their years during the tournament. Suddenly, there were shoots of recovery, and the future looked bright.

But it was a future that required a new leader. Enter Gustavo Alfaro, who took charge just ten days before Ecuador’s first FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying match against Argentina. Hungry for success, Alfaro was keen to rebuild his reputation after a disappointing year with Boca Juniors. Selected for the job because of his proven ability to construct teams with limited resources, the Argentinian appeared to be the ideal appointment, capable of putting together an effective side despite limited time working with his charges. After weeks of analysis prior to taking up the reins, Alfaro and his backroom staff arrived in Quito with one guiding belief, that Ecuador required a generational shift if they were going to qualify for Qatar 2022. During their research, they had observed that the nation’s top footballers were no longer shining in Europe, and were now playing in less demanding leagues. A change was needed, and so Alfaro and his colleagues began travelling all over the country in search of hidden gems, watching as many matches as they could in local stadiums.

The miles they covered were not in vain. Alfaro was pleasantly surprised by the talent emerging at Ecuadorian clubs such as Barcelona, Emelec, Liga de Quito and Independiente del Valle. The scouting mission also extended overseas. At any given time, there are not usually a large number of Ecuadorians plying their trade in Europe, but there were a handful of unheralded pros putting in solid displays abroad: Pervis Estupinan was excelling in Spain, and Plata, a key component of the U-20 team that claimed third place in Poland, was also performing well in Portugal.

In these dynamic youngsters, Alfaro, known for his belief that age should not be a determining factor in player selection, saw a solution. He knew that young footballers need the support of experienced heads, and that if they were good enough they would be capable of establishing themselves in the squad. Sure enough, Piero Hincapie, Moises Caicedo and the aforementioned Plata have since broken into the starting XI, while others with greater experience, like Enner Valencia, Carlos Gruezo and Felix Torres, have been able to provide a platform for them to shine.

Gustavo Alfaro coach of Ecuador watches a match between Brazil and Ecuador

Alfaro was certainly not just pontificating when he laid out his plans, as the stats now demonstrate: Ecuador boasted the lowest average player age – 26 years and ten months – of all the teams competing in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. They also fielded the highest number of players under 20: six, none of whom had played during the Russia 2018 campaign. It is worth noting that this sextet were not simply fulfilling back-up roles, as the group contributed three of the 27 goals that enabled La Tricolor to obtain South America’s fourth automatic World Cup qualifying berth. Inside the national team’s base in Quito, there is a firm belief that the secret to their success lies in having effected a generational change that other countries in the region have yet to make. For now, the Ecuadorians will simply be looking forward to 21 November, when they will take on the host nation in Al Khor in the Opening Game of Qatar 2022. The eyes of the world will be on the South Americans, who could well spring a surprise or two during the tournament. Ecuador have built a team with the perfect blend of youth and experience, working towards a common goal and healing the scars of the past.