Late last year, Jose Cevallos was considering the possibility of retiring from the game. Dubbed Las manos de Ecuador (The Hands of Ecuador) after helping the national team reach the FIFA World Cup™ finals for the first time at Korea/Japan 2002, the goalkeeper had just completed a spell with recently formed Ecuadorian outfit Deportivo Azogues and the glory days appeared to be a distant memory.
Accustomed to the spotlight after playing a part in Ecuador's run to Korea/Japan 2002 and appearing at the finals themselves, and after winning three Ecuadorian league titles and reaching two Copa Libertadores finals with Barcelona, the club where he spent most of his career, Cevallos thought the time had come to say goodbye to football.
LDU reckoned the veteran keeper still had something to offer, however, and six months on Pancho is enjoying a new lease of life at the age of 37. Ten years after his last appearance in the final of the Libertadores, Cevallos is preparing for another crack at the title as his new employers gear up for the two-legged decider against Fluminense of Brazil, with the first leg taking place in Quito on Wednesday.
"I'm delighted to be here," the keeper tells FIFA.com, "and I'm looking forward to this final just as much I was the others. I just hope that this time it will be third time lucky."
While Cevallos may have thought his last Libertadores final was behind him, others such as former team-mate Walter Guerrero knew he still had a contribution to make at the highest level. " . He gives the defence security."
Time to get even
The ageless shot-stopper made his first division debut with Barcelona in 1990, the year in which the Guayaquil side became the first Ecuadorian club to reach the Libertadores final. "I was young and I'd just started my career," he recalls, "and although I was on the bench and didn't play, losing to Olimpia really hurt. It helped me to grow and develop though."
By the following year, Pancho had taken on the mantle of Barcelona's first-choice keeper, displaying the virtues he still shows today: an unfussy approach, excellent positional awareness and a commanding voice. He collected his first league winner's medal that season and in the 1992 Libertadores, Barcelona went all the way to the semi-finals where they were edged out by Sao Paulo.
Two more domestic championships followed in 1995 and 1997 and a second chance to conquer South America presented itself in 1998, Cevallos being one of the architects of Barcelona's run to the final, stopping three penalties in a semi-final shootout win over Cerro Porteno of Paraguay. "It was a very special night, one of the highpoints of my career. We came up against a great Vasco da Gama team in the final and they made the most of our lack of experience."
One decade on, Cevallos' goalkeeping powers remain just as strong, as he showed in keeping out a penalty in LDU's quarter-final shootout triumph over San Lorenzo. "It's difficult to compare the three finals because football has changed a lot," explains the keeper. "It's getting tougher and tougher to reach the final and I don't know if I'm going to get another opportunity. Hopefully I'll get even with this Libertadores time. I've been waiting long enough."
There on merit
Strangely, LDU have gone five matches without winning in the Libertadores. Their last victory was a 2-0 defeat of Estudiantes in the first leg of the last 16 in Quito. The Ecuadorians then fell 2-1 in La Plata but went through on aggregate to the quarters, where they twice drew 1-1 with San Lorenzo before prevailing on penalties.
Two more draws followed against America in the semi-finals (1-1 in Mexico and 0-0 in Ecuador), that away goal at the Azteca proving enough to take them into the final. "We've drawn on our strengths to get here and we're in the final on merit," explains Cevallos in a serious tone. "We deserve to be here just as much as Fluminense."
So just what are LDU's virtues? "We are tactically organised and that means we can play each game the way we want to," answers the evergreen custodian. "The coaching staff have done a great job here and this club really wants to win things. I've only been here for five months but you can tell the team's putting everything into these games. And of course, we've got good players too. Without them you can't win anything."
When the conversation turns to opponents Fluminense, Cevallos is wary. "They are a very complete team with a lot of options up front. They've got their weaknesses like any side but you only talk about those kind of things in the dressing room."
Although the finalists met twice in the group phase, the goalkeeper advises against reading too much into those games. "In the first match we both lacked a little rhythm and in the second both sides sent out weakened teams."
A national cause
As far as Cevallos is concerned, a continental crown would be richly merited. "The club's been doing well for years now and it deserves to win. Winning the Copa Libertadores would also be a major boost for Ecuadorian football. We've qualified for two World Cups, won gold at the Pan-American Games, and we've got several players performing important roles at big clubs.
"It really would be another incentive to keep on progressing." And LDU's No 1 should know what he is talking about, having just returned to international goalkeeping duties after an absence of three and a half years.
As they make their final preparations, Cevallos and his
team-mates know they are also carrying the hopes of a nation, as
borne out by the patriotic pre-match ritual they have adopted.
"The whole 'Viva Ecuador' thing was the idea of the
president's son," he explains.
"When we got to the semis he said we weren't Liga of Quito any more but Liga of Ecuador. We've got the whole nation behind us and we're very excited about that. I just hope we can win the Libertadores and do the country proud."