More than 12 years have now passed since Ecuador first qualified for the FIFA World Cup™. The historic feat came to pass on 2 June 2001, when a 2-1 defeat of Peru in Lima secured one of South America’s four direct qualifying berths for Korea/Japan 2002.
When, 11 months on from that unforgettable night, the Ecuadorian FA announced their squad for the finals, the inclusion of a young and relatively inexperienced Walter Ayovi surprised many. Only 22, Ayovi was just starting to make a name for himself with Emelec, but the then Tricolor coach Hernan Dario Gomez recognised his quality and nonetheless named him in his final squad for the showpiece event.
At the finals themselves, the youngster had to be content with a place on the bench as his team-mates battled in vain to emerge from Group G. However, just being part of Korea/Japan 2002 represented a personal triumph for the player. It also marked the start of a long and successful career in which Ayovi has one overriding goal still to fulfil: making it into the Tricolor starting XI at a World Cup.
“Personally speaking, Brazil will be my last opportunity so I hope I can make it. I was gutted not to be part of Germany 2006, but you can take positives from every experience,” Ayovi revealed exclusively to FIFA.com. After being overlooked for the 2006 finals, the current Pachuca player was further disappointed when Ecuador failed to qualify for the 2010 edition in South Africa.
Showdown with Uruguay
In terms of realising his ambition, the versatile left-sided player knows only too well the importance of 11 October’s crunch qualifier at home to Uruguay. Both sides have 22 points, but Ecuador’s superior goal difference has them in fourth place, the last direct qualifying slot for Brazil. That said, the hosts have taken just two points from their last three outings, allowing a rampant Celeste side to bridge a seven-point gap thanks to three wins on the bounce.
“Uruguay always give you a good game,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s going to be a direct [qualifying] encounter so, from our side, we’ll be giving it absolutely everything.
"Each fixture is completely different so we hope that the group of players the coach picks will play intelligently and get a result. Our goal is to do as much damage as possible [to their qualification hopes] during those 90 minutes,” revealed the only Ecuador player to have played every minute of his side’s Brazil 2014 campaign.
Against Los Charrúas this Friday, the hosts are certain to miss Cristian Benitez, both on and off the pitch. The player’s tragic death last July is something that Ayovi and the rest of the squad are still coming to terms with.
“It affected us all greatly as he was like a brother," Ayovi said. "As a player he was our most dangerous striker, when playing alongside our other front-men. He had qualities that no one has now,” he added with emotion in his voice.
Ayovi then composes himself and looks to the future, saying: “We’re hoping to put that to one side. We’re getting over it as best we can, although every time we get together we miss him. We know now that he’s no longer here, and it’s up to the rest of us to do our jobs and secure the qualification we’re all seeking.”
In spite of everything, the player believes there can be a positive outcome.
“We have what it takes to beat Uruguay. We’ve worked together very well to get into this position – no one has gifted us anything. We’re still in the thick of it and will give our all to get what we’re after. We’re the home side, and we’re strong in our own back yard. Hopefully we can continue in that vein.”
After missing out on South Africa 2010, Ecuador and Ayovi are fully focused on getting to Brazil next year and getting back on the World Cup trail they embarked on in 2002.
Whatever the outcome, it is clear they will leave no stone unturned in their quest, as the player explained at the end of our interview. “We have the chance to make our dream a reality. We as a team, as a country, really want it to happen. So long as that possibility exists, we’ll battle every inch of the way to get there.”