It was in early 2007 that opportunity knocked for Argentinian goalkeeper Marcelo Ramon Elizaga and, true to form, he grasped it firmly with both hands. Having spent the previous two seasons in Ecuador with Emelec, Elizaga was approached by then Tricolor coach Luis Fernandez Suarez, who offered the custodian the chance to join the national-team set-up should he take Ecuadorian nationality.
And for El Polaco (The Pole), the gamble has paid off handsomely, having broken into La Tricolor's starting line-up and helped keep them in the hunt for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "Everybody needs to dream to help reach their goals, I can't think of a better way to keep improving every day," Elizaga told FIFA.com. "But when I came to Ecuador five years ago I never imagined I'd change nationality, play for the national team and be closing in on my first World Cup!"
Elizaga's landmark moment for Ecuador came against country of birth Argentina in the last round of South American Zone qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Among a host of superb saves was a vital penalty stop from Carlos Tevez with the score still 0-0, which laid the foundations for La Tricolor's 2-0 success. "The performance against Argentina couldn't have gone better," said the 37-year-old. "It was important for my career as well as for quashing certain suspicions from the build-up. I really enjoyed it, it was a reward for so much hard work and dedication."
"If you're born in Argentina, you always dream of reaching the (Argentinian) national team," continued Elizaga, when quizzed if he would have preferred to represent La Albiceleste. "But if it wasn't for Emelec and Ecuador then I'd never have played at this level. That's why I've got nothing but gratitude for football in this country."
Born in the Buenos Aires province of Moron on 19 April 1972, Elizaga made his competitive bow in the professional game twenty years later for Nueva Chicago in Argentina's second tier. He made the leap to the top flight in 1998 when joining Lanus, where he spent two years before dropping down a division to sign for Quilmes, with whom he earned promotion in 2003.
The seeds of his current situation were sown with a minor injury back in 2004. "I lost my starting place because of a meniscus problem, but when I was fit again I was frozen out," he explained. "In 2005 the chance arose to join Emelec, which I discussed with my wife and we decided it was the right move. I needed to prove that I could still do the business in a competitive league, but it wasn't easy leaving my country behind. My family were my rock, we all pulled together towards the same objective."
Once at Los Eléctricos, the 1.87m custodian's steady performances, pace off his line and ability to deal with crosses soon made him a key player. Indeed, he was even voted keeper of the year in his first campaign, despite his team failing to challenge for honours. In 2006, El Muro (The Wall) won the coveted award once more and talk began to turn to a national-team call-up.
An emphatic rise
After completing the nationalisation process in early 2007, Elizaga made his debut for La Tricolor in May that year in a 1-1 friendly draw with Republic of Ireland in the United States. His competitive bow came in July at the Copa America 2007 in Venezuela, in the final group game against eventual winners Brazil. "That went quite well too, I even nearly saved a penalty from Robinho," he said of the match which A Seleção edged 1-0.
And in the current FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, Elizaga has started five games for Ecuador, four of which have ended in victory. Wins away to Peru and at home against Argentina in an early June double-header means that La Tricolor are currently in fifth spot on 20 points, within two points of an automatic qualifying berth and only seven behind leaders Brazil.
"The qualifying phase is very evenly matched, and that leads to inconsistency and surprise results," said the shotstopper. "Just look at Paraguay, a few rounds ago they were seven points clear and now they're third. And take our case: after drawing with Brazil people said we were out the running but we've won two games in a row and we're in the mix."
With just four matches to go, El Polaco believes the upcoming games in Colombia on 5 September and in Bolivia three days later, the first of which he will miss through suspension, will be decisive: "Colombia are direct rivals and that makes them dangerous. They're struggling for goals but with the strikers they've got that could change at any moment. The Bolivians always make life hard for you in La Paz, though we'll have to see what their morale is like, because if they lose (to Paraguay) in Asuncion they're out."
"If we can take four points (from the next two games) it'd put us in a very good position, and we can guarantee a play-off spot with seven overall. That said, we're still gunning for an automatic qualifying spot," said the veteran performer, as the interview concluded. "It's true we've got three away games and just one at home left, but at least now it's in our hands. Given how close we are to the finish line, you can't ask for any more than that."