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Jun 21, 2006

World Cup tourists no more

Despite being comprehensively swept aside by Germany in the bubbling cauldron that is the Berlin Olympic stadium, surprise last-16 qualifiers Ecuador remain upbeat that they can upset the odds and England in a do-or-die clash in Stuttgart.

From my seat in the press boss in Berlin on Tuesday, Ecuador did not look a side destined to cause an upset by toppling England in round two, but those involved were keen to point out that this was not the line-up destined to square-up to Sven-Goran Eriksson's stuttering side in a fascinating last 16 clash this Sunday.

'A defeat is always hard to take but to lose to the hosts is no disgrace,' Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez told the assembled press pack. 'Encouraged by their supporters, Germany probably wanted it more. We had already made football history in our land by making it past the group stages for the first time and I think some of the boys subconsciously switched off.

'I look at the England side and it's packed with quality players. Beckham and his great set-piece work, the goal-scoring threat from midfield of Gerrard, Lampard and Cole, Rooney's flair in attack and I've been especially impressed by their very solid defence, where Terry looks very strong.

'But I'm not expecting us to be intimidated by all these big names. Our two wins in the first round and particularly the one against Poland has given us a huge boost. England are a class above Poland but we are on a high and have the skill, spirit and organisation to go further. It might sound foolish to some but why shouldn't we feel confident of being quarter-finalists.'

Aston Villa right-back Ulises De La Cruz shares his coach's optimism: 'Because of my connections in the Premiership, a tie with England is what I've been dreaming of since the beginning of the tournament. It will be a highlight of my career. I know what England are capable of.

'They have their best set of national team players for a generation and it's hard not to be impressed by their great confidence, their total self-belief. I could talk endlessly about the ability of Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney, but we have our weapons too. With no pressure on us at all, we can make the world sit up and take notice.

'People are always saying we only qualified for these finals because we play our home games at altitude. Well, if that was the case, why aren't Bolivia here? We have proved we know more than a little about playing this game. Playing in a high profile World Cup game against England gives us another opportunity to make a statement about the strength of football in Ecuador.'

Former Ecuador star attacker and skipper Alex Aguinaga is also keen to bang the drum for the team known as the 'Tri' (their three national colours being yellow, blue and red). 'England are a good team but I'm not sure they are an exceptional one,' he claims.

'Ecuador's great strength is that they form a really close-knit and hard-working unit. The team is not dependant on one star and everybody knows what is expected of them in the tactical system. We've been playing in the same way for years. Of course we are not favourites, but I'm convinced we can make life difficult for the English.'

Ecudorean journalist Emilio Carrion of the El Universo newspaper is equally hopeful that the 'Tri' will rise to the occasion when they cross swords with England: 'The result of the German game was normal given that several of our first-choice players were rested because of knocks or the fear they would pick up a second yellow card. Against England it will be very different,' he told me.

'This is a team of brothers and fortunately we have a lot of individuals in extremely good form right now. Our captain Ivan Hurtado and 'Shadow' Espinoza are playing excellently in central defence, so are Agustin Delgado and Carlos Tenorio up front. Hurtado is a great dancer. We hope he's dancing in celebration on Sunday night.'

According to Argentine football writer Rodolfo Chisleanschi, an expert on the Latin American scene, Sven-Goran Eriksson's men would be making the mistake of their lives if they expected the clash in Stuttgart to be a walk in the park.

'At the moment Ecuador are South America's third team behind Brazil and Argentina and as such they deserve much respect,' he suggested. 'They know what the World Cup is all about; the bulk of the team was around at the last tournament in the Far East.

'For me, the key to Ecuador's game is the speed and skill they have in wide attacking areas. Valencia on the left may only played in the Spanish Second Division last season (he helped Recreativo Huelva earn promotion to La Liga whilst on loan from Villarreal) but he's technically brilliant and has a powerful shot. On the other side Mendez can make things happen too. They switch wings all the time and will have to be watched very carefully.

'Their coach Suarez is a good strategist and has made his players ambitious. A few years ago they would have to come to the World Cup as tourists. Now they want to achieve something special and victory over England would be just that.'

While the football has been a feast for all observers around the world, the thousands of journalists in attendance have been subjected to stringent measures designed to ensure there are no major security incidents during this summer's largely well-run tournament, yet I suspect some of the scrutiny has been a little heavy-handed.

Because of the global terrorist threat which exists today, and with the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich's 1972 Olympic Games still fresh in German memories, security at these World Cup finals was always going to be extra tight. However, as hack working out here in Germany, it has often seemed that the measures in place at the stadia are way over the top.

Top of this particular league table has to be Frankfurt where one must pass through two cordons: At the first you are frisked and the contents of every bag extensively searched; at the second your bag goes through an airport style scanner. No wonder it has become known as 'Jobsworth City'.

Naturally, would-be miscreants have to be weeded out, but accredited journalists have already been vetted by the German secret services and the question has to be asked whether the ground has been made a safer place by forcing the media to hand over bottles of water and, as in the case of a colleague, a can of shaving cream!

The punters are suffering from heavy-handed officialdom as well. Apparently, a student from Munich was forced to watch the Tunisia vs Saudi Arabia game topless after stewards deemed that his Fred Perry polo shirt earmarked him as a potential hooligan.

A little more common sense, please.


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