When the Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez resigned as Ecuador coach in November 2007 after watching his side lose their opening three qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, officials at the country's FA were left with something of a conundrum: after two successful eras under foreign coaches, could they find an Ecuadorian to steer them to a third?
They clearly felt the answer was 'yes' and duly put their faith in Sixto Vizuete. Though not without pedigree and experience, the new incumbent still represented a risk, albeit a calculated one. So far, though, he has proved equal to the task. After his appointment, La Tricolor went six games unbeaten in the qualifiers, a run that included valuable draws in Argentina and Uruguay and saw them take 12 from 18 points. And though this was followed by defeat away to Venezuela last month, Ecuadorian fans are again dreaming of something that seemed improbable only 12 months ago: a third consecutive appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals.
"On the whole my work to date has been positive, not just in terms of points accumulated but also for having restored confidence to the team. The level the side is at today is as good as it was at the last World Cup and in the two previous qualifying campaigns," Vizuete told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
Ready for the challenge
Born on 13 January 1961, Vizuete prepared long and hard for his big opportunity. He qualified as a Physical Education Instructor in 1986 then as a professional referee three years later. In 1993 he earned his professional coaching badges and, were not impressive enough, also completed a post-grad in coaching at the University of Liepzip in Germany. "That latter qualification had a big influence on my career because of the up-to-the-minute knowledge it gave me and what I learned about discipline and organisation. I'm convinced that the only reason Europe is ahead of us is because they're more disciplined and professional," he says.
In practice, Vizuete honed his coaching skills with the youth sides at Ecuadorian club Espoli, but what really brought him to public attention was his work with the national U-18 team that culminated in the country's first international title: the gold medal at the Pan-American Games Rio de Janeiro 2007. Despite this achievement, many still doubted his ability to coach a senior side, a distinction he is keen to play down. "As someone with coaching expertise and the ability to manage a group, I find no difference. So far [with the senior team] I've done similar work with the same responsibility to that which I did with the youth side."
Vizuete is proud that, after the hugely successful eras of La Tricolor's Colombian coaches Hernan Dario Gomez and Suarez, the Ecuadorian FA put their trust in him: "It means a great deal because I managed to get the FA and the public to believe in an Ecuadorian coach again and realise that we have the ability and character to manage our own national team." Such is the coach's patriotism that he frequently takes to the field with his country's flag. Asked about this, he replies: "I do it because they're the colours of my homeland, the land of my mother. And I'd defend my mother with my life."
As well as regaining lost confidence, the coach identifies another factor in the team's recovery in the current South American qualifiers: their ability to play away from home without complexes: "Ecuadorian players, thanks to their experiences at previous World Cups and in the Liga de Quito side that won the  Libertadores, are now able to play without fear when they're away from home. There are still things to improve, but we're on the right track."
So what specific areas does he feel need improving? "One is mental strength. Every player must be able to perform under great pressure to avoid losing valuable points due to collective lapses in concentration, as happened to us against Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela," he says. Nevertheless, Vizuete oozes confidence when asked to identify the favourites to take the top five slots in the qualifiers: "Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile, as they're the best teams in South America today."
Vizuete rounds off the interview with a further show of ebullience, saying: "As head of the national team, I need to be the most optimistic of all. If you're not sure of your own ability and that of your players, then you're already beaten. I firmly believe we're going to battle right until the final game to achieve our goal of a place at the World Cup in South Africa."