The following article was originally published on the New York Times’ Goal blog on February 26, 2013 and in the print editions of the International Herald Tribune.
It has been a difficult couple of weeks for Barcelona in continental competition. Last Wednesday the Catalan giants dropped a 2-0 decision to AC Milan in the Champions League and on February 12 their Ecuadorian namesake—Barcelona Sporting Club—were denied two points in their Copa Libertadores opener when Nacional’s Alvaro Recoba set up Iván Alonso for a late equalizer in Montevideo.
That the goal came in the third minute of second-half stoppage time wasn’t the worst bit. Throughout the night you got the feeling Barcelona was not only going up against the Uruguayan champions, but Chilean referee Enrique Osses as well.
In the 77th minute, with Barcelona still leading by a goal, Osses issued a second booking to Nacional’s Alejandro Lembo, but somehow forgot to eject the defender until the 83rd minute. At that point Barcelona were, themselves, a man down—José Perlaza having been given his marching orders with a quarter-hour to play—and just when it seemed the referee couldn’t possibly do any worse by them Osses overlooked a stonewall Barcelona penalty in the 90th minute.
Unsurprisingly, the Ecuadorians were furious when the final whistle blew shortly after Alonso’s header, for by and large they had been the better side at Estadio Gran Parque Central. But their anger, their righteous expectation of the win, also said something about the state of the country’s soccer: it’s at a very high standard—perhaps the highest in the barely 60 years professional soccer has been played in Ecuador—and it’s improving.
The signs of progress are easiest to spot at international level, where La Tri trail only Argentina in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
Their 17 points from nine rounds has them five above the three-team scrap for two berths that one of Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile will miss out on, and after losing 4-0 in Buenos Aires last June they’ve gone unbeaten in five matches—a streak that so far includes a 3-1 home win over Chile and 1-1 draw away to Copa America holders Uruguay.
Earlier this month they transferred that local success to Europe, where they beat Portugal 3-2 in an entertaining friendly in Guimarães. And they did it with a squad that included 11 domestic-based players, nine of which hailed from the country’s three biggest clubs: LDU Quito, Emelec and Barcelona.
Ecuador’s robust club game has both provided the backbone of its national side (all the goalkeepers and defenders named for the Portugal match represent Ecuadorian clubs) and given the more fancied teams of Brazil and Argentina something to think about in the Libertadores.
A recently vigorous economy has likely had more than a little to do with that. The Central Bank of Ecuador says GDP doubled between 1999 and 2007, and even though growth has dropped somewhat due to declining oil prices (oil makes up nearly half of Ecuador’s economic output) economic expansion of four per cent is expected when 2012 data is tabulated. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains under six per cent according to a CIA report.
Predictably, these factors have helped prop up a healthy domestic league, which in recent years has become a popular destination for players from Paraguay and Argentina.
Paraguay international Enrique Vera plies his trade for LDU Quito—the only Ecuadorian side to have won the Libertadores—as does Argentina’s Ignacio Canuto, who has picked up three caps for his country. Emelec, the current league leaders, boast two Argentines and two Paraguayans, among them former River Plate icon Cristian Nasuti and Alibirroja striker Pablo Zeballos.
And Barcelona, the reigning champions, got their two goals against Nacional in the Libertadores from Argentine playmaker Damian Diaz and countryman Ariel Nahuelpan—both in their mid-20s and spending the primes of their careers in Ecuador’s Serie A.
But Ecuador has been busily developing its own players as well, many of whom have been scouted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Foremost among them is Frickson Erazo—the Barcelona centre-back who just might be the country’s best defensive prospect in years. Tall, elegant and mature at 24-years-old, he has a good command of the box, will take the ball off an opponent without breaking his legs and plays the sort of perfectly-weighted long pass that can turn defense into attack in a matter of seconds.
Erazo says both Manchester United and Real Madrid have scouted him recently, and in an interview with the Daily Mail last week admitted there had been “initial contact” with United.
Not that any of this should be surprising. Big clubs with big scouting networks will always turn up where the good players are. It just so happens that Ecuador is churning out those players at an increasingly rapid rate, and at prices the suddenly belt-tightening European clubs find more palatable than, say, what the Brazilians are demanding for their prospects.
Take Vasco da Gama’s Dedé, for example. He is the same age, has the same body type and plays the same position as Erazo, but where Vasco want upwards of £15 million for his signature Erazo could be had for well under half that amount. And he just might be the better defender.
There are other Ecuadorian youngsters catching the eye as well. Just last month Juventus snapped up 18-year-old midfielder José Francisco Cevallos Jr. (son of the former Ecuador goalkeeper of the same name) from LDU Quito, and Fortuna Düsseldorf recently reached an agreement with Independiente’s Cristian Ramírez that will see the highly-rated left-back play his football in Germany next season. They paid only €500,000 for him.
While Ecuador’s Serie A continues to improve, its clubs are still not in a position to hold out for astronomical transfer fees. But given the trajectory of the domestic club game that reality will surely change over the next few years, and as it does the country’s teams will both develop prospects and compete for major, continental honours even more frequently than they are now.
Ecuador’s time has come. And the effects of their arrival are being felt throughout the soccer world.