Ecuador gunning for top ten
© AFP

No sooner had the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ come to an end than Ecuador began working towards a fresh objective: Brazil 2014. Having reached the world finals for the first time at Korea/Japan 2002 and repeated the feat at Germany 2006, the South Americans were understandably disappointed not to make it to South Africa.

Determined to set the record straight, the Ecuadorian FA took immediate action. In August 2010 they put the national team in the hands of Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda, who had just steered Honduras to the showpiece on African soil.

At the time Ecuador lay 58th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. One month later they would slip to 72nd, falling perilously close to the 76th place they occupied in June 1995, the lowest point in their Ranking history.

Those dark days are long gone, however. At the halfway stage of the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014 El Tri lie second in the South American Zone group, just three points behind leaders Argentina and five clear of Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile in fourth through to sixth, and directly competing in the battle for the four automatic qualification slots.

Ecuador’s excellent form in the qualifiers has also boosted their Ranking performance. After reaching their highest-ever position last December, the Ecuadorians have continued to rise, moving up one place to 12th in January and within touching distance of the top ten, where continental rivals Argentina and Colombia sit third and fifth respectively.

There are South American sides ahead of us and we can pull right alongside them if we keep showing this commitment.
Coach Reinaldo Rueda on Ecuador's potential to rise even further in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings

Coach Rueda has seized on Ecuador’s inexorable Ranking rise to motivate his squad: “It’s the players who have earned that recognition in the FIFA Ranking,” said the 55-year-old coach in a recent press conference. “Now comes the good part: defending it. We can’t settle for mediocrity because there are South American sides ahead of us and we can pull right alongside them if we keep showing this commitment. That’s the challenge that we’ve got.”

As part of that continuing challenge the Ecuadorian FA arranged a high-profile friendly with Portugal, who lie seventh in the Ranking. And when the two sides met in Guimaraes on Wednesday evening, Rueda’s men proved up to the task, as goals from Antonio Valencia and Felipe Caicedo and a Joao Pereira own goal cancelled out strikes by Cristiano Ronaldo and Helder Postiga to give them a notable 3-2 win.

Brazil back in focus
That victory extended Ecuador’s unbeaten run to seven games, having not been beaten since July last year, when they went down 4-0 to Argentina in Buenos Aires. Sure to boost their World Ranking, Ecuador’s accomplished win over the Portuguese will also fill them with confidence when the South American qualifiers for Brazil 2014 resume.

Though Rueda’s side will sit out the next round of games on 22 March and could well relinquish second place in the table to Colombia, they will be back in action four days later at home to Paraguay, who lie 35th in the Rankings. The omens look good for El Tri too, having won all five of their qualifiers in Quito so far, scoring nine goals and conceding just one in the process.

Though La Albirroja are surprisingly last in the table on seven points, albeit only five off the play-off place, Rueda is by no means underestimating them: “Paraguay have got some very good players and a new coaching team, so we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve achieved a lot up to now but we’ve got seven even more important games left on the road to qualifying.”