Sunday 10 June will be a special day for Ecuador’s Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda, who will send his side out to face his fellow countrymen in a vital qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Curiously, Rueda is the fourth Colombian to occupy the Tricolor hot-seat in the last 17 years, and the 55-year-old’s task is to match the achievement of two of his compatriots to precede him in the post, Hernan Gomez and Luis Suarez, who respectively guided Ecuador to Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, the country’s only two appearances at the world finals.
“We know that’s one of the reasons why they put their faith in us,” Rueda told FIFA.com. “The people who went before me left their mark, helping to make Ecuadorian players more professional and to broaden their knowledge. That triggered a learning process for the people that run the game, the fans and the media, and it opened the way for us. Everyone here recognises their achievements and I hope to build on them.”
Pacho shows the way
The unusual story of how Ecuadorian football established an increasingly solid relationship with Colombian coaches can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when Los Cafeteros were enjoying something of a golden age. Under the canny stewardship of Francisco Maturana, Colombia qualified for both Italy 1990 and USA 1994 on the strength of a core of athletic and richly talented players producing an elegant yet effective style of football.
That fine blend caught the imagination of the then president of the Ecuadorian Football Association (FEF), Dr Galo Rogeiro, who called on Maturana to lead his project.
“We met one day at four o’clock in the morning at Fisciano in Italy,” Maturana told FIFA.com. “The person I saw before me was someone who put technical attributes before physical ones. He told me that’s how Ecuadorians felt about their football, and given that kind of support, I accepted the challenge.”
And so it was that on 24 May 1995 the man they call Pacho became the first Colombian to take charge of the Ecuador team. His Tricolor tenure spanned 41 games, comprising a healthy 19 wins, seven draws and 15 defeats. Though Maturana’s men finished seventh in the South American qualifying competition for France 1998, four points adrift of the last direct slot, his term in office, which ended in November 1997, proved a positive one.
Ecuador broke new ground in that failed campaign, beating Argentina and Uruguay for the first time ever in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They also performed well at the 1997 Copa America, reaching the quarter-finals unbeaten before going out on penalties.
Though his assistant coach Suarez was in charge of the side for that tournament, it was unquestionably the team that Maturana built, with Jose Cevallos, Ivan Hurtado, Ulises de la Cruz, Alex Aguinaga and Agustin Delgado, all heroes of future triumphs, establishing themselves under the pioneering Colombian.
A natural process
Though it was nearly two years before the FEF appointed Gomez as Maturana’s successor, the choice made by new president Luis Chiriboga was an entirely logical one. Not only had El Bolillo, as Gomez is known in the game, worked with Maturana in Colombia, he had also overseen Los Cafeteros’ qualification for France 1998.
The results he achieved speak for themselves. Ecuador turned Quito into a fortress, beating Brazil for the first time in a qualifier there, and taking second place in the group behind Argentina to reach Korea/Japan 2002, their maiden appearance at the biggest show in world football.
“His achievement was, and without overlooking the technical side of things, to instil the team with a kind of disciplined aggression,” said Maturana, reflecting on his successor’s stint. “He also got the team to gel with the fans and the press.”
Though Ecuador failed to get beyond the group phase in Asia, Gomez only left the job in July 2004, following a disappointing showing in the Copa America in Peru. In his 66 games in charge, he oversaw 24 wins, 18 draws and 24 defeats, a record slightly inferior to Maturana’s, and brought players of the calibre of Ivan Kaviedes, Carlos Tenorio and the incombustible duo of Edison Mendez and Walter Ayovi into the international fold.
The great leap forwards?
As the next Colombian to take on the job, in September that year, Suarez was also an obvious choice, as he himself explained to FIFA.com: “I’d been Maturana’s assistant and I knew the environment. They were after continuity and the fact that they replaced Hernan with someone from the same school ensured they got it. I’d also coached Aucas and was up to speed with Ecuadorian football.”
Though Suarez’s win ratio was down on that of his two countrymen, he managed to add character to the team, one that gave as got as it got wherever it went and qualified for Germany 2006 in third place. Finishing an excellent second behind the hosts in their group at the world finals, they were knocked out in the Round of 16 by England.
“There was a handover from one generation to another, and thanks to that the likes of Luis Valencia, [Cristian] Benitez, Segundo Castillo, Christian Mora, [Christian] Noboa and Jefferson Montero are all around today,” said Suarez, explaining his legacy.
Following his departure in November 2007, Sixto Vizuete became the first Ecuadorian coach to remain in charge of the national team for more than two years. A solitary point separated his Tricolor side for the play-off for South Africa 2010, after which the FEF reverted to type and stationed another Colombian coach at the helm.
“With everything they sowed and reaped, my compatriots set the bar very high, and we know we’re going to be judged against that,” said current incumbent Rueda, who successfully steered Honduras to South Africa. “Our job, then, is to consolidate a generation that, as well as qualifying for the next World Cup, will also lay solid foundations for the next 12 years.”