Christian Noboa's star has been rising inexorably in recent months, and a hugely promising future awaits the Ecuadorian attacking midfielder.
In December 2008, he became the first Ecuadorian to win a league title in Russia, helping modest club side Rubin Kazan to a maiden title. Shortly afterwards, Noboa was rewarded with a call-up to Sixto Vizuete's senior squad for their friendly against England's U-21s in February. After coming on with his side two down, the playmaker performed a pivotal role in helping La Tri turn the game around and record a 3-2 win.
Impressive, yes, but not that impressive for an ambitious and gifted youngster. However, it is what happened the following month that has made the player a household name in his homeland and generated such expectation. After being named in Vizuete's squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifyiers against Brazil and Paraguay, Noboa became a national hero by twice coming off the bench to score the goals that earned Ecuador two 1-1 draws, and kept their dreams alive of a third successive appearance at the global finals.
"I'm very happy to be part of the national team, to have made a contribution and shown everyone how I'm playing in Russia," the man of the moment told FIFA.com from Kazan, where he will be celebrating his 24th birthday on 9 April.
A dream fulfilled
On 28 March in Quito, Ecuador found themselves undeservedly trailing Brazil 1-0 with the clock showing 89 minutes. Yet the home side continued to press and Noboa, who had entered the fray just 15 minutes earlier, was on hand in the six-yard box to rifle home the equaliser after a shot rebounded off goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Suddenly all the hard work at formative club Emelec, his move to Russia in early 2007 and the difficulties adapting to European football were all forgotten.
"At the precise moment of scoring, it didn't sink in. All I could think of was that we could still win this game and I was screaming at Julio Cesar to let go of the ball so we could get on with the restart. It was only that night it really hit me that I'd scored against Brazil. I had to keep saying the words over and over."
Noboa said he felt very calm right up until the moment he was called into action. "To play against Brazil had always been a dream of mine, and though I was pretty relaxed about the call-up, all that changed when Vizuete said 'Christian, get ready to go on'. I felt this strange mix of elation, gloom, anxiety and nervousness, but I thought, 'No matter what happens, no one can take this moment away from you.' An instant later I said to myself: 'Now go out there and show everyone why you've been called into the squad'," he recalls passionately.
The man from Guayaquil is clearly not one to rest on his laurels, as just three days later he came off the bench once again to put his side ahead against group leaders Paraguay. "You always want to do well but to come on and score again... what are the chances? I think my celebration after scoring against Paraguay was for both my goals," he said, laughing.
Noboa turned serious, however, when the conversation switched to Ecuador's recent results and qualification prospects. "The game against Brazil could have gone either way. When all is said and done, taking a point off them is never a bad thing, so we took some comfort from that. The feeling after the Paraguay game was completely different, though. When the final whistle went, I felt like crying. Back in the dressing room we just looked at each other, incredulous at what had just happened," he said, referring to the Los Albirrojos' last minute equaliser.
Maturity and confidence
Noboa's newfound maturity has unquestionably been a product of his Russian experience. "The first six months there were tough. It was the first time I saw snow, for example, and straight after arriving I got bronchitis, which left me housebound for a full week," he recalled. Things improved for the South American when he got to know Olya Romanova, his current partner. "When you start learning the language and customs, you're able to think about other things outside football," he explained.
Professionally, Noboa also faced a big challenge in his new environs. "At Emelec I was used in a withdrawn striker's role and only had to concern myself with attacking - playing the 'beautiful game' as it were. When I came here they asked me to be multi-functional: to score, to get out wide on both flanks, to get in the box, then track back and defend. At first I found it very tough, but fortunately I've managed to get used to it. Winning the league title was a source of great pride for me and my country," said the player who has scored seven times so far for Rubin Kazan.
As our long distance conversation comes to an end, Noboa's thoughts turn to the possibility of playing at South Africa 2010. "Mathematically there are still possibilities, so one must never give up in that kind of situation. If we approach the Peru and Argentina games with the same attitude and hunger we showed against Brazil and Paraguay, I'm convinced we can win. We need all six of those points but we'll have to improve our finishing for that to happen. Still, we have what it takes to do it - Ecuador showed against two of the region's heavyweights why it is currently a force in South American football."