Ecuador's Independiente del Valle making noise in Copa Sudamericana against Argentine, Brazilian giants
South America has its very own version of the 2015-16 vintage Leicester City, a mouse that roars so loudly that it turns into a lion.
In a scenario of continental club competitions dominated by Argentina and Brazil, little Independiente del Valle from Ecuador are bucking the trend. In 2016 they reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, eliminating the Buenos Aires giants River Plate and Boca Juniors along the way. Now they have struck again, overcoming Independiente, another famous name from Argentina, to make it into the last four of the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent.
These would be extraordinary feats for any South American club. They are off the scale of amazing given the size of this particular club. Independiente del Valle are a tiny outfit from the suburbs of Quito. They have only played in the Ecuadorian first division since 2010, and their stadium has a capacity of little more than 7,000. It is too small to be used on the big international nights, so they move into the capital to use the Olimpico Atahualpa, the traditional home of the Ecuadorian national team. Spread out in the bowl, their supporter base looks tiny, but it is growing, with young fans attracted by the club's extraordinary rise.
Independiente del Valle do count, of course, on the advantage of playing their home games at altitude. Quito lies some 2,800 metres above sea level, where the thin air makes life difficult for unacclimatised opponents. But plenty of bigger clubs play at altitude, without being able to match the recent run of success of this humble club from the suburbs. The secret lies in the professional manner that they go about their business, and the fact that their model is a perfect match for the realities of the contemporary game.
The club were taken over a few years ago by businessmen who understood that footballers are a commodity for sale in a global market. They are singlemindedly seeking to identify and develop young talent, and then sell them on. The club's full name is El Club Especializado de Alto Rendimiento Independiente del Valle: a specialized club of high performance.
The team that reached the final of the 2016 Libertadores had a couple of experienced Uruguayans to provide some ballast. After the competition they stayed and the other nine were sold, making way for the club's next generation of youthful talents.
It is true that they have yet to produce a genuine earth shaker, although winger Jefferson Montero -- now of Birmingham City -- was the outstanding player in Swansea wins away to Chelsea and Manchester United. Some of their graduates have yet to live up to the expectations surrounding them, but Real Valladolid have high hopes of burly centre-forward Stiven Plaza. But there is always a new crop pushing to make a name for themselves. This year Ecuador were South American Under-20 champions, and came third in the World Cup at the level held recently in Poland. The backbone of the side was made up of Independiente del Valle players, some of whom have already been sold.
Today's side boasts 20-year-old attacking midfielder Jhon Jairo Sanchez, instrumental in both legs against Independiente of Argentina. Striker Alejandro Cabezas, 22, bristles with potential. Twenty-year-old midfielder Alan Franco is the motor of the team. Defender Anthony Landazuri is a good prospect, and 18-year-old centre-back Leonardo Realpe oozes class.
In recent seasons the club have looked to Spanish coaches to guide the team, and manager Miguel Angel Ramirez can also count on the services of a Spanish player, former Barcelona B attacking midfielder Dani Nieto. It was Nieto who scored the vital goal on Tuesday that won Independiente del Valle a place in the Sudamericana semifinals, where the mouse will hope to keep on roaring against Brazilian opposition. They now await the winners of the tie between Corinthians and Fluminense.