Very few teams will leave the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany as proud of their displays as Luis Suarez's Ecuador . Their unprecedented qualification for the Round of 16 electrified their nation, creating history in the process.
Before the tournament, La Tricolor were very much an unknown quantity and largely ignored outside Latin America. The draw was not favourable to them either, as their berth in Group A pitted them against hosts Germany, Poland and an unpredictable Costa Rica side. The general consensus in the media was that the Ecuadorians had a chance of finishing runners-up behind Jurgen Klinsmann's men, but that achieving it would not be easy. Nobody, however, was in any doubt as to their stomach for the fight. After all, Ecuador had claimed the notable scalps of South American giants Argentina and Brazil en route to qualification.
'Mission accomplished' for Ecuador'
As it was, the pundits' pessimism could not have been more misplaced. Flair, dynamism and goals turned out to be the watchwords as the unheralded South Americans breezed through the group stage. The dangerous Poles were stylishly seen off by two goals to nil, while Costa Rica were negotiated with ease, as La Tricolor ran out 3-0 winners .
Two games, two wins, and a place in the Round of 16 safely booked. In his team's final Group A encounter against Germany, Suarez duly rested several of his first-choice stars, handing valuable experience to some of the squad's fringe players. Roared on by a partisan crowd, the hosts triumphed 3-0 , but the South Americans were already looking forward to upsetting one of the big boys in the knockout stages.
The Ecuadorian miracle almost became reality. A stubborn rearguard display was punctured only by a majestic free-kick from England captain David Beckham, and that after Carlos Tenorio had rattled Paul Robinson's crossbar early in the first half. Even in defeat, Suarez and his men could hold their heads high, as their defence, marshalled by the evergreen Ivan Hurtado, coped with almost everything that England's attack could throw at them.
Though it is difficult and perhaps unfair to single out one man from Ecuador's many unsung heroes, the driving force behind their qualification from Group A was the striker who has been the focal point of the team's attack over the last few years: Agustin Delgado. The one-time Southampton player took his leave of international football in the best way possible, scoring two vital goals to set his team on the road to the last 16.
In addition to a collective work ethic that put other countries to shame, other players such as lightning-quick front man Carlos Tenorio, dashing full-back Ulises de la Cruz, and inspirational skipper Ivan Hurtado all boosted their international reputations with a series of stellar displays.
Another player to make his mark, in more ways than one, was colourful keeper Cristian Mora. An injury doubt right up to the eve of Ecuador's first game, Mora's outstanding performance was one of the hallmarks of his country's FIFA World Cup campaign. No less memorable was Mora's penchant for taking to the field with two miniature Ecuadorian flags painted on his cheeks.
In spite of their painful exit, the players will not be plagued by questions of what might have been as they made the long trip home. The Ecuador squad of 2006 will be remembered for their commitment to attacking football, and their displays in Germany will serve as a yardstick by which their nation's future footballing achievements can be measured.
Reasons to be cheerful
In fact, the future looks very bright for football in the Andean nation. Players like Hurtado, Delgado, De la Cruz and Ivan Kaviedes are unlikely to figure at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, but Suarez's legacy will be the young players that he has blooded during their entertaining 2006 campaign.
Youngsters such as Mora, Segundo Castillo and the Recreativo Huelva starlet Luis Antonio Valencia, not to mention the fleet-footed Carlos Tenorio, can only grow in stature over the next four years. Their ambition will be to build on the success of 2006, to take football in their homeland to places that it could not even dream of just a few months ago. After doing so well at what was only their country's second FIFA World Cup, Ecuadorians are already hoping for even better things next time round.