After getting off to a dreadful start in the South American qualifying competition and changing coach as a result, Ecuador have recovered their poise under the steady hand of Sixto Vizuete. Seemingly down and out a few months ago, El Tri now lie fourth in the group and are within touching distance of a direct ticket to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
But before they can even start to think of celebrating, the Ecuadorians have to negotiate two vital ties against direct rivals for the two remaining automatic qualification slots: Uruguay in Quito and Chile four days later in Santiago, all this with the mighty Argentina breathing down their neck in fifth.
On the eve of the two most important games Ecuador have faced since Germany 2006, Vizuete spoke exclusively to FIFA.com. On the agenda were the challenges his side face in the next few days, the key to the turnaround in their fortunes, and the possibility of having to take the play-off route to what would be their third consecutive FIFA World Cup.
FIFA.com: Sixto, Ecuador have two crucial games ahead of them. How is your team shaping up?
Sixto Vizuete: We're absolutely fine. We've had a few players injured recently and I'd say we're at about 90 per cent of what we could be. We're feeling confident, though, and we're determined to make sure of qualification in these two games. We know we're on the right track and that we just need to keep going.
Ecuador have jumped up to fourth place. How would you explain the reversal in your fortunes?
The big change came when we started putting away the chances we were making. We played really well in some games but we couldn't translate that into goals. Fortunately that's all changed in the last few games and the team spirit is also excellent.
With four games gone, reaching South Africa 2010 appeared an impossible dream. Presumably the team's mental approach has changed too.
Since we started out on this difficult job we've been focusing on the need for humility and for the players to be proud of representing their country. We try to encourage that every time they pull on the shirt. We wanted to foster a sense of teamwork and solidarity, the idea that they were defending the national colours. They got the message quickly.
Is that why you always walk out on to the pitch carrying a flag?
Of course. I've always said that first and foremost I'm Ecuadorian and that I'm defending my country. I'm always talking to the players about this, about what it means for the nation when they win and what they represent for Ecuador. We have the good fortune to be representing this country around the world and there's no bigger source of pride than that.
Do you think that sense of belonging has been diluted in today's ultra-professional world of football?
It's not something you see very often, obviously. But we know that if we are going to achieve things as a country, we need to have that sense of conviction. Football is a team game, a game in which both skill and national pride play a part. Ecuadorian footballers put that before money and material things, and the results are there for everyone to see.
Your next opponents are Uruguay, who are still well in the running. Would you prefer to be facing a team with nothing to play for?
Every qualifying match is a final and this one is no exception. But we have home advantage, the altitude and our fans on our side and we'll get the win. This is a great opportunity for us. We need three points to all but ensure a play-off place and that's why we need everyone, the whole nation included, to treat this game like a final.
What kind of threat do Uruguay pose?
They are a combative side who are well organised at the back and very strong in the air. They have what we call garra charrúa (Uruguayan grit) and in their last two qualifiers here they came away with draws. It's a different story today, though. Ecuadorian football is on a high and there's a place at the World Cup at stake.
Will you be following the Argentina-Peru game?
Let's be realistic. Argentina are a great team and terrifically well organised. They're used to being in and around the top spots and I think they'll beat Peru, who only have pride to play for. It would be great if Peru could get a draw but we shouldn't be feeling too nervous. It's in our own hands and if we win our last two games, we'll be in South Africa, no matter what happens elsewhere.
Are you keeping an eye on the CONCACAF group or are you refusing to think about the play-off?
We're watching absolutely everything, from European football to the CONCACAF Zone, of course we are. We can't leave anything to chance and we know which teams might be in the play-off. There's a very good chance we might end up there but let's make one thing clear: we want to qualify automatically and we have the resources to do it. Why shouldn't we?
One last question. Can you tell us what you think Sixto Vizuete might be doing on 15 October?
Who wouldn't want to be celebrating qualification? I honestly hope that's what I'll be doing, whether it's direct qualification or having clinched a play-off place. The South American qualifiers are very tough and very competitive, and teams like Chile, Venezuela and Paraguay, who are in great form right now, have improved an awful lot. We've all improved a lot and being in this position with just two games to go is an achievement in itself.