The surprise success of Enner Valencia
It's five out of five so far for South America, with Uruguay digging deep to save themselves and joining Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia in the knockout stages. Can Ecuador complete the set? Their task is far from straightforward. Ecuador go into their game against France at the Maracana striving to undo the damage of their heartbreaking opening defeat to Switzerland.
In the second half, with the score tied at 1-1, Ecuador looked the more likely winners. Indeed, their chance came in stoppage time. But the move broke down, and the Swiss broke straight up the other end to claim the three points.
It leaves Ecuador with one eye on the Honduras-Switzerland game, taking place simultaneously in Manaus. Four years ago, in similar circumstances, Honduras held the Swiss to a draw to prevent them from qualifying. Ecuador will be hoping that the Hondurans can go one better and win the game this time. As it stands, then, Ecuador could even qualify on goal difference if they lose to France. Alternatively, they could miss out on goal difference if they win, and there is a landslide victory in the other game.
Whatever happens, Ecuador will be looking for top performances from their most important players. The defining characteristic of coach Reinaldo Rueda's team is the way it attacks down the flanks with pace, power and skill. So far, though, captain Luis Antonio Valencia has been something of a disappointment down the right, as Rueda pointed out after the 2-1 win against Honduras. On the other wing, Jefferson Montero has been much more eye-catching. But for all his talent, his ability to glide past his marker on either side, his end product is often disappointing. It is just as well, then, that Enner Valencia has risen to the occasion.
Scorer of all of Ecuador's three goals so far in the competition, Enner Valencia is a surprise success story. Firstly because he has only recently come into contention for a place in the starting lineup -- and owes his opportunity to the tragic death last year of Christian Benitez. And secondly because until recently he was not even a striker. Valencia was playing his club football for Ecuadorian club side Emelec on the right of midfield, or as a jet-heeled wing-back.
His is a typical enough story in the impressive recent rise of Ecuadorian football. The afro-descendent percentage of the population is not high -- around 7 percent, with many of them living in the north-western Esmeraldas province, the region that is producing so many talented footballers. Enner Valencia is one of them.
Seven years ago he joined Emelec, in the big port of Guayaquil. As the local newspapers have been recalling in these past few days, he had to sleep in rudimentary lodgings in the club's George Capwell stadium. He had no money to stay anywhere else and, at times, struggled to buy enough to eat. Emelec were started by the local electricity company, and Valencia looked fully charged up as he dominated the right flank.
It was in this position that he made his Ecuador debut in February 2012, coming on for the last 10 minutes of a friendly against Honduras -- a country that has gone on to play an important part in his international career.
The following year he was successfully converted to a striker, and was the outstanding player in domestic football as Emelec won the national championship. After the death of Benitez, Rueda looked around for alternatives and brought Valencia back into the team. He played three of the last four World Cup qualifiers, without scoring. With Ecuador's World Cup place sealed, they played a friendly in Houston last November against Honduras. The defence had problems handling opposing striker Carlos Costly, and Ecuador were 2-1 down -- until Valencia came off the bench to crack home a magnificent equaliser.
He has not stopped scoring since. Valencia has enjoyed an excellent first season in Mexico with Pachuca, and has scored in all his subsequent Ecuador matches -- against Australia, Mexico and England in warm-ups, followed by the goal against Switzerland and the two against Honduras in the World Cup. The golden streak from the man from Esmeraldas began against Honduras; Ecuador are hoping it did not end against Honduras. They want him to keep it going against France and make it six out of six South American teams in the 2014 last 16.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.