Footballing minnow

Ecuador first entered the World Cup qualifiers for the 1950 edition in Brazil, but withdrew. It gave the 1954 and 1958 tournaments a miss as well. But from 1962 to 1998, in spite of 10 attempts, Ecuador failed to qualify for the world’s premier football tournament.

In a continent where football is a way of life for many, Ecuador is probably the most detached of countries from this idea. Its national team has appeared only twice at the FIFA World Cup.

And the first appearance was at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan. It qualified again four years later for the tournament in Germany and actually made it to the round of 16.

Ecuador first entered the World Cup qualifiers for the 1950 edition in Brazil, but withdrew immediately after. It gave the 1954 and 1958 tournaments a miss as well. But from 1962 to 1998, in spite of 10 attempts, Ecuador failed to qualify for the world’s premier football tournament.

In 2002, the side finished second in the qualifiers, even ahead of eventual champion Brazil. But the visit to South Korea/Japan proved a tough outing. Pitted against Mexico, Italy and Croatia, it finished at the bottom of its group, despite snatching a win over Croatia.

Following the qualifying high of 2002, Ecuador repeated the feat for the 2006 edition too. Helped by the goal-scoring exploits of Agustin Delgado, who had starred in 2002 as well, qualification was achieved, after finishing third in the South America qualifiers.

But the story in Germany was markedly different from the 2002 Finals.

After two victories — 2-0 over Poland and 3-0 over Costa Rica — with Delgado scoring in both, the Ecuadorians surprisingly finished second behind the host nation in its pool and moved to the next round. But a second-half free-kick from England’s David Beckham ended Ecuador’s run.

A record third straight World Cup beckoned for the Republic of Ecuador in 2010, but it finished sixth in its continent.

Another successful qualifying campaign has now given Ecuador its third chance at the World Cup.

Coached by the Columbian Reinaldo Rueda, as has been the case in the past two editions (Hernan Dario Gomez in 2002 and Luis Fernando Suarez in 2006), the team finished fourth in the qualifying. Grouped alongside Switzerland, France and Honduras, the side can indeed hope to go beyond the group stages.

* * * A national hero

Agustin Delgado is perhaps the most famous of players in a country bereft of footballing stars. The all-time top scorer for the Ecuadorian national team, with 31 goals in 71 games, he made crucial contributions in the two World Cups that Ecuador has been part of - 2002 and 2006.

The first ever goal that Ecuador scored in the World Cup was by Delgado against Mexico in 2002. In fact, he was the joint top-scorer during the South American qualifiers for the 2002 tournament with nine goals, alongside Argentine Hernan Crespo.

Ecuador qualified for the 2006 edition too, thanks again to five goals in 10 games from Delgado. In the Finals, he scored a goal each in Ecuador's shock 2-0 win over Poland and 3-0 victory over Costa Rica, enabling his team to finish second behind Germany and qualify for the last 16. Delgado has also played professional club football in Ecuador, Mexico and England.

Ulises de la Cruz, with 101 caps for his country, is another famous footballing personality in Ecuador. Even off-field, he is popular for his charitable initiatives. He played in the team that reached the second round of the World Cup in 2006.

Nicknamed "las manos del Ecuador" meaning "the hands of Ecuador", Jose Francisco Cevallos is most remembered for his impressive performance in the 2002 World Cup qualifying phase. Earning 77 caps before retiring in 2004, he also played his part in four Copa Americas for Ecuador.