Second in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and - since April this year - sitting for the first time in the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Ecuador are the team of the moment in South America. Led by Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda, La Tricolor's talented squad are riding a wave of popular support, and appear well on course to reach their third global finals.
One of the players at the centre of it all is Jefferson Montero. A light-hearted joker off the pitch and a driving force on it, the 23-year-old is one of several talented youngsters carrying the hopes of the Ecuadorian public. "I play every game as if it's my last, but I see myself as someone who has fun on the pitch too," the winger told FIFA.com in his characteristically laid-back tone.
Montero can be serious when he needs to be, however, like when discussing Ecuador's prospects of qualifying for Brazil 2014. "We're on a terrific run at the moment and we have to make the most of it," he said. "I have one objective, just like all my team-mates. We have a commitment to our country and we're going to really go for it."
Ecuador have a qualifying double-header on the horizon, with an away trip to Peru on 7 June before they host Argentina in Quito four days later. Montero, who plays for Morelia in Mexico, says he is "having a great time" on a personal level, and that he is relishing his side's forthcoming trip to Lima.
"It's special for me to play against Peru," he said, "because it's always been a derby match with an electric atmosphere in the stands, and they're a close rival. It's also because I scored my first World Cup qualifying goal in Lima, in 2010.
"And in 2007 I made my [senior] international debut against them, which fulfilled my father's biggest dream. He always wears a moustache, but he was so happy that he shaved it off. It was a promise, and I personally made sure he kept it!" he added with a laugh.
La Tri’s encounter with leaders Argentina, however, represents a different kind of challenge. "We know there are no tickets left for the game, even though it's still some time away," said Montero. "Our people are behind us, and we want to bring them joy. For me, the fact that it's a sell-out only adds to the motivation."
Montero, with Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo, is an important figure in what he describes as "one of the top three" forward lines in South America. There is certainly weight to that claim, with the trio having contributed 11 of Ecuador's 16 goals in Brazil 2014 qualifying to date.
"We've been playing together for four or five years," Montero said, "but we should also highlight the work of [fellow Ecuador winger] Antonio Valencia, who drags two or three players with him to leave me, Felipe and Chucho with more space on the other side."
Highs and lows
A football-obsessed child, Montero spent all his free time playing the game, going to school "only to put my name on the attendance register" and waking up at four in the morning during Korea/Japan 2002 to catch La Tri in action.
Since turning professional, however, he has not always managed to perform to his full potential. And after disappointing spells with Villareal and Levante in Spain, he found himself overlooked for Ecuador's squad for the 2011 Copa America in Argentina.
"It was a big blow, and it hurt me a lot," Montero said. "It taught me a lesson, and showed me what I needed to do to be part of the World Cup qualifying campaign. I really enjoy reading quotes by famous people. There's one by Michael Jordan, where he says that when he wasn't picked for big tournaments, he used the setbacks to become more mature. I pushed myself much harder, and now here I am."
Betis were the first club to benefit from the new, improved Montero, and the young winger is now continuing his rise with Morelia. But what in his game has changed, exactly? "My end product," he said. "I knew it was something I needed to improve. Before, I would hit an aimless cross or give the ball away, allowing the opposition to launch a counter-attack.
"Now, though, I try to spend an extra second choosing the best option. I stayed behind after training to work on it, and I can now finish moves however I want. I improved through hard work and by listening to criticism, because criticism is something you can learn from."
A unique experience
While talent has clearly played a part in Ecuador's progress, Montero believes the real secret to their success is their strong team spirit. "What we're experiencing in the national team at the moment has never been seen before," he explained. "Even the longest-serving players are saying it."
"We meet up and have a laugh together. We also film a lot of videos for people to enjoy, and to show them what we're experiencing. Many people think Antonio [Valencia] is different, but he's actually one of ones who make us laugh the most. This camaraderie and sense of brotherhood makes for a very strong group, and that strength shows on the pitch."
In sport, it often takes a failure to create success. In Ecuador's case, the turning point was their first-round exit at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina. "Why do we keep progressing? Because every player in the team practises self-criticism. We all do it: players and technical staff. And now we're seeing the results."
The future promises a great deal for Montero – and not just in a football sense. "Between now and July I'm going to become a dad for the first time, and I have the chance to qualify for the World Cup with Ecuador," he said as the interview concluded, adding: "These coming months will be very important in my life."