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May 24, 2006

Living the high life

History

Unless Germany is raised above sea level by about 2,000 metres then we can expect little from Ecuador, at least that's according to their critics.

The country qualified for their second World Cup this summer - qualifying for the first time in 2002 - by finishing third in the CONMEBOL region, behind Brazil and Argentina, but won seven and drew two of their home qualifiers at an altitude of 2,800 metres in Quito.

On the road they lost six, drew two and won just one - also achieved at high altitude in La Paz in Bolivia. They did beat both Brazil and Argentina along the way but traditionally they have fared better against South American teams and have struggled against European opposition. At the World Cup Ecuador, who did not play any international outside South America until 1970, find themselves in a group with Poland and 2006 hosts Germany.

Brazil coach Carlos Alberto put it bluntly. 'Ecuador qualified by winning their games at altitude,' he said. 'That's the only reason.'

Although that may be putting it a little harshly their home advantage can not be underestimated. Ecuador won a staggering 23 points of their overall total of 28 points in front of their raucous home crowd.

Ecuador will be aiming to prove everybody wrong in Germany this summer and to do so they will have to improve on their debut performance four-years ago. At Korea/Japan 'La Tri' fell at the first hurdle after losing to Italy and Mexico, but managed to beat Croatia 1-0, thanks to Edison Mendez's goal, to record their first win.

La Tricolour had been regarded as one of the weakest South American national sides having failed to qualify for the Finals on numerous occasions, but now they are slowly changing public opinion.

They first participated in qualifying in the 1962 campaign but were well beaten by Argentina over two games. In 1966 they came close but lost a play-off with Chile and subsequently fell away before making a decent effort in the 1998 campaign.

2002 proved a watershed for the Ecuador team as they rocketed up FIFA's World Rankings from 75th into the top 30 and booked their place at the finals for the first time.

2006 represents the last chance for many of the older generation who travelled to Korea/Japan and will be desperate to go out on a high, with the young guns hungry to prove their worth at international level.

Ecuador will be looking to use the experience of four years ago to take the next step at Germany 2006.

The gaffer

In July 2004, after seven qualifying games and a disastrous showing at the Copa America in Peru, Hernan Dario Gomez stepped down as Ecuador coach and was replaced by Luis Fernando Suarez.

The 46-year-old Colombian was previously part of compatriot Francisco Maturana's staff when he was manager of Ecuador between 1995 and 1998 and it was the same man who persuaded Suarez to retire form playing and embark on a career in coaching.

Under Maturana at Atletico Nacional the defensive midfielder was part of the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores in 1989. He then called time on his playing career at the age of 29, on his mentor's advice.

Suarez became coach of Atletico in 1991 and also had stints with Pereira and Millonarios before moving to Ecuador to work as assistant to Maturana with the national team.

Suarez went back to Colombia after Ecuador failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup and returned to Atletico Nacional in 1999 as head coach and guided the team to the Colombian championship.

After brief spells with both Deportivo Cali and Deportes Tolima Suarez returned to Ecuador in 2003 to coach unfashionable provincial club SD Aucas. Their performances caught the eye and he was called up to resurrect La Tricolour's qualifying campaign.

Despite being described as a typical Colombian coach - hard-working, friendly and approachable - Suarez has long history with Ecuador and the sympathetic coach retained their traditional 4-4-2 formation during his triumphant qualifying campaign.

Suarez's international experience also includes spells as assistant coach of the Colombian youth team at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and the preparatory tournament for the Pan-American Games in 1993. Six years later he was involved with the senior team that took part in the Copa America in Paraguay.

The Medellin-born Colombian now faces the biggest challenge of his managerial career and has reportedly been learning English so that nothing escapes his attention at the Finals.

One to watch

Edison Mendez began life in the small village of El Chotal with aspirations of becoming a world class goalkeeper, but it was as a midfielder that the youngster rose through the ranks of the Ecuador youth system - representing his country at the South American U-20 Championship in Paraguay in 1999 and in the qualifying tournament for the 2000 Olympics - to make his full debut in March 2000 in a 3-1 defeat against Honduras in Quito.

Later that month, as a 22-year-old playing only his second international, Mendez marked Rivaldo out of the game in a World Cup qualifier against Brazil and progressed to become the driving force behind Ecuador's historic qualification for Korea/Japan 2002. La Tricolour qualified for that tournament ahead of Brazil, and Mendez scored the only goal of their solitary win in Japan against Croatia, who finished third at France 1998.

At the 2002 Finals he played something of a support role to veteran midfielder Alex Aguinaga, but since his colleague's retirement Mendez has become much more than an anchorman. The Ecuador regular is now the team's playmaker and his long-range shooting is one of their most important attacking options.

He scored the winner as Ecuador beat Brazil 1-0 in the qualifiers and followed that up by one of the finest goals of his career, a stunning 30-yard chip in the 5-2 win over Paraguay in Quito. In all he took part in all but two of Ecuador's 16 qualifiers, scoring five goals.

Mendez began his club career in 1995 with Deportivo Quito, enjoying seven impressive seasons there before El Nacional acquired his services in 2003. The following year, he headed to Mexico to play for Santos Laguna in the Apertura championship and Irapuato in the Clausura. He joined his current club, LDU Quito, in 2005 and immediately helped them to the Apertura championship.

The 27-year-old is now a key player for the national team, winning 62 caps and scoring 10 goals.


  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.