Ecuador World Cup ends in heartbreak
Not even captain Antonio Valencia's red mist moment should take anything away from Ecuador's achievements at this World Cup. In the end, La Tri held their heads high despite a timid, heartbreaking departure from the 2014 World Cup. It was particularly painful because they held to a goalless draw -- with just 10 men for much of the second half -- a France side that had bulldozed Honduras and Switzerland.
Yet they lost their place in the round of 16 on goal difference to Switzerland, whom the Ecuadorians could have beaten in their opening game with a little more ambition. It'll take some time for them to get over losing that match 2-1 to a 93rd minute goal.
Moreover, Ecuador will miss out on the next installment of what's becoming a Latin fiesta in Brazil. Of the nine South American and Central American teams who started the tournament, only Ecuador and fellow Group E contestants Honduras have failed to qualify for the round of 16. One can only wonder how intriguing a last 16 clash with Argentina could have been. Ecuadorians can now only dream of upsetting their richer neighbors, who Messi and company categorically hammered 4-0 in the South American qualifiers.
So what now for Ecuador? They arrived in Brazil with some expectations fuelled by a qualifying campaign in which they secured CONMEBOL's fourth spot and forced Uruguay to the playoffs. But they failed to match their best World Cup performance so far -- a 2006 trip, when they were narrowly beaten by England in the round of 16 with a David Beckham free kick.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be hopeful. In Brazil, Ecuador gave two European sides a run for their money -- despite the caveat that France were pretty relaxed and rested a number of players in Rio on Wednesday -- and that can only bring some confidence for their next stops: the 2015 Copa America in Chile and the qualifying campaign for Russia 2018.
It will clearly be a much harder task to return; not only will Brazil be back in the mix, but the intensity and courage shown in this tournament will not have gone unnoticed on the continent.
It's not too early to think about what the squads for those campaigns might look like. At 28, Valencia could still be quite useful for those battles. The first reactions from the Ecuadorian press suggest it will be the Ivorian referee Noumandiez Doue rather than the Manchester United winger who ends up scapegoated for Wednesday's draw. He is their captain and their third most-capped player and while it would be harsh to blame him for Ecuador's exit, Valencia did let his team down. If he is to lead the charge again he will need to assume the responsibility that comes with great powers.
That said, the discomfort in the camp was blatant. In the mixed zone, defender Frickson Erazo revealed to Brazilian reporters -- he plays for Rio side Flamengo and although supporters don't rate him that much, some shouted his name in the stadium during the quieter moments of the game -- that Valencia had not apologized for the dismissal.
"Antonio is our captain and an important player for us. We missed him, because it was already very difficult to handle the French with 11 players on the pitch. And no, he didn't apologise", said Erazo, who refused to elaborate further.
Then there was the "other" Valencia. Enner Valencia's three goals at Brazil 2014 have already kick-started a tug-of-war for the Pachuca striker. Goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez must have caught the eye of some scouts after some very decent saves in the tournament -- it would be surprising if he remained at LDU for much longer.
The Ecuadorian supporters made as much noise as they could and gave Les Bleus fans a good game in the shouting war with their "yes we can" chants. In the end, however, Ecuador will head home realizing that they missed a pretty good chance to shine a bit more than they did in Brazil.